Robert E. Machol

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Robert Engel Machol (October 16, 1917November 12, 1998) was an American systems engineer and Professor of Systems at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management of Northwestern University.


  • The fellow who is able to get the grants and contracts is the fellow who gets the doctoral students. Each student publishes two or three papers on his thesis, in each of which he cites his professor's work. Then he goes on and does his own subsequent work, in which, of course, he cites those thesis papers which were coauthorised by his professor.

System Engineering (1957)


Robert E. Machol, Harry H. Goode (1957) System Engineering: An Introduction to the Design of Large-scale Systems. McGraw-Hill.

  • The lack of formal definition does not prevent us from noting the characteristics which are frequently present in large scale systems. Each such system has a certain integrity. It may or may not be rigidly controlled from some central point, but in every case, all the parts of the system have some common purpose; in some sense, they all contribute to the production of a single set of optimum outputs from the given set of inputs, with respect to some appropriate measure of effectiveness.
  • A new concept and a new method were needed. The concept from the engineering standpoint is the evolution of the engineering scientist, i.e., the scientific generalist who maintains a broad outlook. The method is that of the team approach. On large-scale-system problems, teams of scientists and engineers, generalists as well as specialists, exert their joint efforts to find a solution and physically realize it.
    We are led to the concept of the system-design team, a small group of engineers or scientists, to lead a large project and organize the system effort. Such men have been variously called engineering scientists, system engineers, system analysts, or large-scale-system designers. The technique has been variously called the systems approach or the team development method. It is toward this man and his teammates that these discussions are directed. With the realization that not enough can be learned in all the required fields to make him a specialist, enough is introduced to make him aware of the language and problems of the specialist. This generalist is a new quantity in the engineering world, and his education must be begun.
    • p. 8
  • There are four distinct bases on which a system-design book might be organized. First are the chronological phases through which the system-design effort passes, such as organization and preliminary design. Second are the logical steps such as analysis of the single thread (operation on a single input) and high traffic (methods of handling multiplex inputs). Third are the parts of the system, such as communications and displays. Fourth are the tools of system design, such as information theory and queueing theory.
    • p. 8
  • [Systems should be classified] on the basis of the types of inputs with which they must cope.
    • p. 299; As cited in: Thomas C. Ford (2008) Interoperability Measurement. p. 146
  • [This set of inputs [can be defined] as 1) input which is always the same or is of many types, 2) input which occurs periodically (or very infrequently), and 3) input which does or does not seek to destroy the system. Their rationale for developing the classification was to aid in the definition of steps to be followed in order to find the] solution of the problem of a large-scale or complex system.
    • p. 302; As cited in: Thomas C. Ford (2008) Interoperability Measurement. p. 146
  • Every large-scale system is an information system. The automatic factory, the vehicular-traffic system, any military system- in the design of all these systems, primary attention should be given to the flow of information about the elements of the system.
    • p. 316
  • Management has a design and operation function, as does engineering. The design is usually done under the heading of organization. It should be noted first that the performance of a group of people is a strong function of the capabilities of the individuals and a rather weak function of the way they are organized. That is, good people do a fairly good job under almost any organization and a somewhat better one when the organization is good. Poor talent does a poor job with a bad organization, but it is still a poor job no matter what the organization. Repeated reorganizations are noted in groups of individuals poorly suited to their function, though no amount of good organization will give good performance. The best architectural design fails with poor bricks and mortar. But the payoff from good organization with good people is worthwhile.

Information and Decision Processes (1960)


R. E. Machol (ed.) (1960) Information and Decision Processes McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York,

  • In April of 1959, ten of this country's leading scholars forgathered on the campus of Purdue University to discuss the nature of information and the nature of decision... What interests do these men have in common?... To answer these questions it is necessary to view the changing aspect of the scientific approach to epistemology, and the striking progress which has been wrought in the very recent past. The decade from 1940 to 1950 witnessed the operation of the first stored- program digital computer. The concept of information was quantified, and mathematical theories were developed for communication (Shannon) and decision (Wald). Known mathematical techniques were applied to new and important fields, as the techniques of complex- variable theory to the analysis of feedback systems and the techniques of matrix theory to the analysis of systems under multiple linear constraints. The word "cybernetics" was coined, and with it came the realization of the many analogies between control and communication in men and in automata. New terms like "operations research" and "system engineering" were introduced; despite their occasional use by charlatans, they have signified enormous progress in the solution of exceedingly complex problems, through the application of quantitative ness and objectivity.
    • p. vii
  • At this time it is difficult to put one's finger on any single contribution in the decade 1950 - 1960 which is comparable to those above, and yet progress has probably been even greater. From the point of view of an educator, one cannot overlook the wide distribution which has been given to these ideas. There has been remarkable progress from analysis to synthesis, always a sign of maturity in a field of analytic endeavour. There has been consolidation, for example in the establishment of a more rigorous basis for information theory; there has been unification, for example in the demonstration of the formal similarity between game theory and linear programming; there has been application to mathematically more difficult situations, for example nonlinear servo systems and information channels with memory; there has been implementation, as in commercially available computers which by any reasonable measure are hun- dreds of times more powerful than the primitive devices of 1950; there has been de-limitation of the boundaries of many of these fields.
    • p. viii
  • We have discovered in this past decade that thinking, and decision, are not solely the province of the metaphysicist, but are appropriate subjects for scientific inquiry.
    • p. viii
  • We assert that it is possible to describe analytically any human function which can be reasonably defined in objective terms and we specifically include in such functions "thinking" insofar as that term is definable. If by "thinking" one means being able to do arithmetic, or play a good game of chess, or learn from experience, or make optimal decisions in exceedingly complex situations, then we assert that thinking can be described analytically. And there are two important corollaries: if It can be described analytically, it can be simulated; and if it can be simulated, it can be performed mechanically.
    • p. viii-ix
  • [There is a] basic problem … of building a mathematical model of thought processes, and in particular of those aspects of thought which are concerned with information and decision processes. The perceptron is one type of model -- a set of memory devices connected in random fashion-- which has not yet achieved useful results but certainly seems to be a promising approach. The self-adaptive feedback control system which goes beyond the normal servo function of controlling its output, and in addition controls the parameters by which it controls its output is another which has already achieved pragmatic results in equipment control. It may be that the question of self-adaptation is a key to the whole question of how the human functions in a decisioning situation. For in many cases the ability of the human mind to adapt itself to a changing and complex environment is beyond our present aims in model construction.
    • p ix-x
  • Sometimes it is more difficult to formulate the criterion for a problem than to state the question itself.
    • p. xi

Mathematicians are useful (1971)


Robert Machol in: Paul Lewis "Mathmaticians Are Useful." The California Tech. May 6, 1971.

  • Everyone knows what engineering is. All that's left is to define systems, and I'm not fool enough to do that.
    • p. 1: Machol explains his definition of systems engineering.
  • The purpose and real value of systems engineering is... to keep going around the loop; find inadequacies and make improvements.
    • p. 1
  • Mathematicians are there to find the constraints and to eliminate those things that aren't constraints... I know this will surprise many of you, but they are useful!
    • p. 1
  • Scientists possess healthy skepticism. They realize that you've got to know the answer before you measure it.
    • p. 1:
  • The ideal system engineer is an engineer thoroughly versed in his field but conversant with and knowledgeable of other fields. You have to have the capability and desire to become a 'six-month expert'... You've got to want to become a generalist, too.
    • p. 1

Principles of Operations Research (1975)


Robert E. Machol (1975) "Principles of Operations Research—9. The Hawthorne Effect." Interfaces 5:31-32;

  • The conclusions of most good operations research studies are obvious.
    • Cited in: Paul Dickson (1999) The official rules and explanations. p. 14
    • Machol named this the "Billings Phenomenon". Dickson explains: "The name refers to a well-known Billings story in which a farmer becomes concerned that his black horses are eating more than his white horses. He does a detailed study of the situation and finds that he has more black horses than white horses, Machol points out."
  • If the assumptions are wrong, the conclusions aren't likely to be very good.
    • Cited in: Norman Pascoe (2011) Reliability Technology: Principles and Practice of Failure Prevention in Electronic Systems. Ch. 5
  • There comes a time when one must stop suggesting and evaluating new solutions, and get on with the job of analyzing and implementing one pretty good solution.
  • Sometimes, where a complex problem can be illuminated by many tools, one can be forgiven for applying the one he knows best.
    • Cited in: Paul Dickson (1999) The official rules and explanations. p. 164
  • Most accidents in well-designed systems involve two or more events of low probability occurring in the worst possible combination.
    • Cited in: Richard K. Betts (1982) Surprise attack: lessons for defense planning. p. 158

Quotes about Robert E. Machol

  • The pressure to generate the ideas and methods attributed to Systems Engineering stems directly from the needs of 20th century society. As our frontiers have disappeared, man has turned to technology to furnish the "good life" in a rapidly shrinking, crowded world. Our interdependence upon one another has increased in direct proportion to the population increase. The race to maintain or improve the operating efficiency of society has required that the systems and mechanisms that serve the society also become increasingly complex and interdependent.
    Goode and Machal have provided statistics to illustrate the above. They note that the world population increased from 800 million in 1750, to 1200 million in 1850, and 2400 million in 1950. Maximum transportation speeds went from 40 mph in 1850, and 100 mph in 1900, to commercial transport speed of 350 mph in 1950 and supersonic transport planes of over 1200 mph in the 1960's. Our communication systems are a good indication of increasing complexity. U.S. telephones jumped from 350,000 in 1900, to 55 million in 1955.
  • At an age when many people consider retiring, Robert E. Machol stopped teaching at Northwestern University and started a new career as chief scientist for the Federal Aviation Administration. There, while in his 70s, he predicted "catastrophe" after studying the turbulence created by the jet engines of 757 airplanes--work that predicted fatal crashes and eventually led to a change in federal aviation policy... "I was the first guy within the agency who got up and said, `We're likely to have a catastrophe, a real catastrophe … if we don't do something," Mr. Machol told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. Eventually, the agency ordered landing aircraft to maintain a greater distance behind 757s to avoid the jet's dangerous "wake vortex." But the policy change came only after crashes in Billings, Mont., and Santa Ana, Calif., that killed 13 people.
  • Bob Machol's life involved a number of strands — aviation, scientific writing, systems engineering, chemistry, research, applying OR to sports, computing and mushrooms — that intertwined over the years. Consider his involvement with aviation. It started in 1940 when, fresh out of Harvard, Bob enlisted in the Marines, intent on becoming an aviator. Although Bob didn't earn his pilot's wings, he did emerge from World War II holding the rank of lieutenant commander.
    Following the war, Bob became involved with research organizations (the Operations Evaluation Group and the University of Michigan's Willow Run Laboratories) that were looking for improved ways of defending the United States against air attack. This work led to Bob's groundbreaking book, "Systems Engineering," co-authored with the late Harry H. Goode.
  • I recount this as it reminds me of some of the lessons Bob preached and practiced throughout his professional career:
    • Make sure that you're solving the right problem.
    • Listen and observe, but question everything.
    • Follow the data wherever it leads you.
    • Use mathematics and mathematical models sparingly and with a purpose.
    • Learn the technology and be aware of the political or organizational context; fit the mathematics accordingly.
    • Understand your role, either as an advocate or an analyst.
But maybe the most important lessons were from the truly dynamic duo, Bob and Florence: how they lived life together in all of its glory, enjoying every aspect of their days together and not willing to miss a thing.
  • I had professor Machol at Kellogg in 1985 for Operations. Professor Machol was intimidating. Rumor around the class was that he had been in charge of logistics for the U.S. Navy in the Pacific theatre during WWII. He was teaching EOQ modeling in one early class, leading me to pose a question, ‘Professor Machol, would it not make sense to do … for the sake of consistency’. His reply is oh so memorable almost 40 years ago.. “Mr. Clark, consistency is the bugaboo of small minds” (ouch!). No doubt relative to this giant, my mind was and remains small indeed!
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