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Snapshots of Stafford Beer

by John Friend

I can make no claims to having known Stafford Beer well. What I can however claim is to have been a colleague of his earlier than most if not all contributors to this record. So this recollection of our first encounter, plus the scattered occasions when our paths crossed subsequently, may perhaps help in filling in some corners in our composite picture.

In 1954, at the age of 23, I took up my first civilian job after two years as a postgraduate conscript in the Royal Air Force. I became a so-called Assistant Mathematician in the Central Research Laboratories of the United Steel Companies at Rotherham, close to Sheffield. One of the four main companies in the United Steels group was the Samuel Fox works at Stocksbridge, ten miles up the Don valley from Sheffield, where Stafford at that time ran the production control office. I only recall one visit, probably in 1955, with the head of my section John Andrew, who had told me in advance something of Stafford’s already colourful reputation. I remember clearly being ushered into the modest control room at Samuel Fox to meet Stafford and admire his impressive array of control charts spread all around the walls. So here perhaps was the birthplace of much of the early thinking later to be presented to the world in Decision and Control.

In those days, there were no computers in that factory or anywhere indeed anywhere else in United Steels; or at least no electronic computers. For “computer” was then the official job description of our two office assistants in Rotherham - both co-incidentally called Jean – who provided analytical support for my section by crunching numbers very audibly on desktop electric calculating machines.

Two years ago my wife and I moved in retirement to Oughtibridge, half was up the Don valley from Sheffield to Stocksbridge, and my wife started doing some occasional voluntary work at the Stocksbridge Library. Her co-worker June remembers Stafford clearly from her early days as an office worker at Samuel Fox. She tells us that he used to live with his family in a substantial house further up the hillside in Stocksbridge – then a rough and ready steelworks town, and now suffering from a drastic decline of its local economic base.

June retains a picture of Stafford striding down every morning to the works in the bottom of the valley, tall and immaculate in his dark business suit. Not surprisingly, when his obituaries appeared, she recognised his earlier photos as a sharp-suited executive much more readily than the more recent pictures of him as a monkish figure with a long white beard. I had left United Steels by the time Stafford moved to set up the group department of Cybernetics and OR at Cybor House in Sheffield. I still pass by Cybor House from time to time, now occupied by offices of various insurance companies. Perhaps there is a link to be drawn there somewhere?

My next encounter was when Stafford interviewed me for a job in their new SIGMA consultancy. The outcome was a warm and friendly letter from Stafford telling me that I did not quite match the profile of added skills for which they were looking at that time.

Later encounters were to be few and far between, but there are three snapshots that I would like to add. While I was working in Coventry, Stafford came one day to give a lunchtime talk in the majestic setting of the city’s modern cathedral. I was impressed when he projected on a large screen an excerpt from an early German film called Molochi, in which people built a vast machine that then proceeded to devour the humans and take control of the world for itself. I can’t remember clearly what lessons he drew from this, but most of us would probably find it not too hard to guess.

Then there was a long gap before I next met Stafford in 1984, at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, during what had been planned as a surprise commemoration of Russ Ackoff’s 65th birthday. I don’t think of Russ as easily surprised by anything, but he certainly put up a good appearance of astonishment on that occasion. This was the first time that I had seen Stafford since his transformation to what one of his obituarists has described as an “Old Testament Prophet figure”. My last brief encounter with Stafford was in 2000 when I found myself in Toronto1 as a participant in the millennial World Congress of the Systems Sciences. He was clearly frail, but I reminded him of our first encounter at the Stocksbridge works in the fifties, and he softly replied that that was a long time ago.

My own research interests have gradually drawn me away from the fields of cybernetics and systems science, as I reported at the Toronto meeting . However, I have recently enjoyed a close association at the University of Lincoln with Stafford’s close friend Raul Espejo, and this has helped in keeping my picture of Stafford and his many impacts on the world in the forefront of my mind.

John Friend, Oughtibridge, Sheffield.

1Friend, J. Engaging with Transient Complexity in Development Projects. In Understanding Complexity, eds. Gillian Ragsdell and Jennifer Wilby, pp91-102. Kluwer Academic/Plenum 2001.