A postman, a streetsweeper,...

...all that was missing were the Bridges of Königsberg.

A few days ago I was strolling around our quiet neighborhood with my infant son. We approached a T in the road. From the left came our local postal delivery guy. From the right rumbled a street zamboni. Can you blame me for feeling as if I had found myself inside some sort of graph theory nightmare?

Turning to the section on Eulerian chains in my undergrad discrete math textbook---Applied Combinatorics---by Fred S. Roberts, I found this sentence: "A large area for applications of combinatorial techniques is the area of urban services."(467) Roberts goes on to list a slew of published studies taking on problems ranging from optimizing snow removal routes to assigning municipal workers' shifts.

Here we have an interesting example of non-military state science sponsorship (even if its just a matter of the state providing the problem). There must be some good historical work out there on this, right? Off the top of my head, I'm drawing a blank. But the comments section is open for suggestions.


Well, logistical optimization questions such as this are part of the history of operations research (OR) and management sciences (MS). These sorts of things do have a non-military background. The famous "traveling salesman problem" originally came up in the context of a problem on school bus routing being handled in the famous Princeton Mathematics Dept. of the 1930s (the Wikipedia article leaves out the crucial role of mathematician Merrill Flood).

However, unsurprisingly, this sort of work received a major boost from military support during and after WWII. The Navy and RAND Corporation were major supporters of logistical research. Aside from the then-new journals in OR and MS, the Naval Logistics Research Quarterly was a major venue for development. However, other early applications were mainly industrial, including petroleum refining, railroads, and civil aviation. On its application to derivatives trading in the 1960s and '70s, see Donald MacKenzie's recent book, "An Engine, Not a Camera".

The best historiography on applied mathematics is mainly internal stuff. Theory and applications are best chronicled in Saul Gass and Arjang Assad's "Annotated Timeline of Operations Research", with copious references to other piecemeal lit (it actually includes the Koenigsberg Bridge problem in its pre-history!). Also see British economic historian Maurice Kirby's book, "Operational Research in War and Peace," which details some civil gov't sponsorship (through state-sponsored research associations and state labs like the Road Research Laboratory). I think Erik Rau may have put out a short article somewhere on applications in library science. Historian of economics, Judy Klein, will have a good discussion of a lot of the early technical history (inventory theory, dynamic programming) in her forthcoming book, "Protocol of War", mainly on military applications as the title suggests. My own dissertation, "A Veteran Science" (which I am still working on turning into a book) synthesizes and recontextualizes a lot of this work, but there is not much in there on state support for civil applications. I should have an article coming out on the instantiation of OR at MIT and the Arthur D. Little consulting firm later this year.

Will. Thanks for that really terrific historiographic summary and thanks for stopping by.

I'm looking forward to seeing "A Veteran Science" now. I'm also pretty psyched by your reference to Rau on OR and library science.

Our readers should note that Will keeps up a fantastic blog over at Ether Wave Propaganda.

Thanks for the plug, Dan. I'm happy to see this blog back in action. The current title of the book version of my dissertation is "In Pursuit of Rationality: Science and the Rise of Policy Analysis".

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