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You are at: Wagner Home > Company > History > Dan Wagner ORMS Obituary

OR/MS Today ©October, 1997

In Memoriam:  Daniel H. Wagner, 1925-1997

By John D. Kettelle

To paraphrase Shakespeare, I am writing this obituary not to praise Daniel H. Wagner, but to help us learn from him. Beginning with his at-sea analyses of aircraft capabilities for the Navy's Operations Evaluation Group (OEG) in 1952, his career dates back to the initiation of operations research (O/R) as a recognized profession. As his colleague in the mathematics department at Brown University from 1946 to 1948, and later his partner in Kettelle & Wagner (K&W) from 1957 to 1963, I shall start by sharing with present-day INFORMSers some of the excitement of those early days.

The excitement was real. It combined the "ach-phenomenon" characteristic of the discovery of a new theorem with the belief that this new discipline could revolutionize the non-scientific world. At Brown, we had been studying math for math's sake - real variables, Banach spaces, finite groups, and cohomology. Beauty, rigor, and elegance - certainly not utility, were our goals. I'm sure Dan would agree that his Ph.D. thesis - On Free Products of Groups - had not the slightest application for O/R. By the time Dan and I converged nine years later, we had tasted this excitement of O/R - Dan at OEG, under the guidance of Jacinto Steinhart; and I at A.D.Little, mentored by Arthur A. Brown and George Kimball.

Our partnership was quickly given a challenge commensurate with our eagerness. The Soviets had developed intercontinental ballistic missiles (called ICBMs, to avoid confusion with a business machine company), and the US was building the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS), so that it could flush its strategic bombers before they were destroyed by these missiles. BMEWS could get individual radar returns from a space object, associate them into target tracks, and if enough tracks appeared to be directed at the US we were to launch SAC (Strategic Air Command, then headed by General Curtis LeMay, who smoked big cigars). The problem was that other things, most notably aurora borealis (The radar was in northern Greenland.) and space debris, could also generate radar returns. SAC decreed that a false alarm rate of one per 100 years was acceptable, and asked us for alarm rules that would allow them to launch as many bombers as possible (before impact) at the cost of that false alarm rate. Given the morass of data on false returns, computation of a false alarm rate that any alarm rule would generate was a daunting (not to say scary) task. We made a key breakthrough - by parsing the behavior into (1) the probability that one more report would trigger an alarm and (2) the rate at which such reports would arrive. (Like so many results, this idea was far less obvious before we found it than it seems in retrospect.) Our alarm rules were in fact installed, and were operational for many years. Fortunately, the cold war has ended before those fateful 100 years elapsed!

Here I can't resist telling the story (well publicized at the time) of the first BMEWS false alarm. It occurred the evening of the first day the system went operational. When the moon rose, it was plumb in the middle of the radar coverage. At a range of some 275,000 miles, it should not have looked at all like a Soviet missile (with typical ranges of one or two thousand miles). But radars are saddled with a pulse repetition rate; in our case this meant we could only measure the range modulo 3000 miles. For example, an object 275,000 miles away would give a range of 2000 miles. So the moon generated a massive Soviet raid. Fortunately, that was the week that Kruschev was at the United Nations in New York, pounding his shoe on the table, and the SAC general in charge used that fact to reinforce his belief that the alarm was false!

In 1963, after 5 years, we split up. To avoid even the appearance of acrimony, we never announced the reason. (We did announce a general reason - that a partnership is like a marriage, except it doesn't have sex and kids going for it.) In fact, we had a fundamental disagreement about the extent of rigorous mathematical defense for the results that should be presented to our clients. Dan felt that I was too elliptical (inclined to omit much of the rigor), and I felt he was too hyperbolic (insisting on details only a mathematician could love). The 35 intervening years have convinced me that Dan had a better point than I gave him credit for. As professionals, we must set our own standards for the validity of our work. If his were too high, mine were surely too low. Of course, you are confronted with a dilemma when the client buys your preliminary result and doesn't want to pay for your subsequent rigorous follow-up!

When we split up, Dan formed Daniel H. Wagner, Associates (DHWA) (and I formed Kettelle Associates, there being sufficiently few Kettelles). His personal technical accomplishments in those early years concentrated in submarine warfare - a report (jointly with Tony Richardson and Ed Loane) on the "Theory of Cumulative Detection Probability", and another (jointly with Loane) entitled "Submarine-versus-Submarine Secure Sweep Width Manual'. In those days, when Soviet attack submarines were the principal threat to our carrier Navy, and when Soviet ballistic missile submarines were threatening warningless attacks on the national command authority; this stuff was central to efficient naval operations. He also spearheaded work (for Morgan Guaranty) on optimal coupon selection in bidding on new issues of municipal bonds.

DHWA Consulting Staff - 1976

Rear: Bill Browning, Tom Corwin, Frank Engel, Bruce Scranton,

Stan Benkoski, Bill Barker

Middle: Burg Rhodes, Bernie McCabe, Les Arnold, Barry Belkin,

Joe Bolmarcich

Front: Dave Bossard, Dan Wagner, Tony Richardson, Larry Stone

Nevertheless, it is my (I believe well-shared) conviction that Dan's biggest contribution to our profession (one that will be replicated long after his death) was his injection of "pure" mathematicians into the field of O/R. He recognized that the rigorous thinking and the scientific maturity that can be found in first-class math Ph.D.s are of great potential value to the identification and solution of the operational problems that are O/R's raisons d'etre. He devoted his professional life to this conviction. As a result, we are blessed with scores of such mathematicians. To illustrate, I can't help listing a few of these known to me personally: Dave Bossard, Larry Stone, Tony Richardson, Barry Belkin, Ed Loane, Tom Corwin (now president of Metron, a Wagnerian spin-off), Bernie McCabe, and Joe Bolmarcich. An extensive history of DHWA written 12 years ago illustrates the productivity of his staff - some 150 reports to clients, and another 91 journal and textbook publications.

A particular strength of the Wagner staff has been search theory. Larry Stone's book; "The Theory of Optimal Search" is still in print as an INFORMS publication. This strength led to some remarkable adventures:

  • The successful search for the H-bomb lost in the Mediterranean off the Spanish coast in 1966, when a B-52 collided with a tanker.
  • The successful search for the USS Scorpion in 1968, an attack submarine that imploded 400 miles west of the Azores, and went to the bottom at a depth of some 2000 fathoms.
  • The successful search (guided by Larry Stone, who was then with Metron) for the Coast Guard packet ship sunk off the coast of South Carolina in 1857, with $400,000,000 of gold (from California) aboard.

Not that Dan doesn't deserve praise for his O/R career. He certainly does. But I led off this "obituary" with the primary objective of assessing what the profession should learn from it. It is my conviction that he was able to demonstrate the truth of the early basic hypothesis on which the profession was founded - that mature scientists, such as physicists like Philip Morse, chemists like George Kimball, or mathematicians like Dan himself, can bring a unique and valuable approach to the solution of operational problems. I do not belittle the other approach that has dominated the profession over the past 35 years - graduate training specifically for the O/R profession. But the signal success of the mathematics scholars brought into our community by Daniel H. Wagner is a candle that the wind will not blow out.

Daniel H. Wagner Prize for Excellence in Operations Research Practice

In 1997, CPMS, The Practice Section of INFORMS, established the Daniel H. Wagner Prize for Excellence in Operations Research Practice. The prize is funded by generous contributions from METRON Inc., Daniel H. Wagner Associates, Inc., and Applied Mathematics, Inc.

Information on the prize is available at INFORMS On Line.


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