Steven Vajda

Steven Vajda

Steven Vajda (August 20, 1901 - December 10, 1995) played an important role in the development of mathematical programming and operational research for more than fifty years. He was a member of a select circle of innovative researchers that included George Dantzig, Abraham Charnes [] , W.W. Cooper, William Orchard-Hays, Martin Beale and others. He worked and taught as an actuary and as a mathematician in operational research from 1925 to 1995. From 1939 until his death in 1995, he lived in the U.K. where he was a defence scientist with the Royal Naval Scientific Service, and a Professor at Birmingham and Sussex universities. He was a Companion of the Operational Research Society [] , a Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society [] , a Fellow of the Institute of Mathematical Statistics [] and a member of the Mathematical Association [] . He is the author or coauthor of at least a dozen books on mathematical programming, game theory, manpower planning and statistics and of many journal publications and conference papers. He was fluent in a number of languages, including English, German, Hungarian, and French and had a good grasp of several others. He taught and mentored generations of students in Austria, Germany and the United Kingdom.

Early life

Steven Vajda was born in Budapest in 1901, an Austro-Hungarian of the empire of Franz Joseph I of Austria. His family moved to Vienna in 1903, and it was in this city that Steven was raised and educated. Although he was a diligent and successful student, he did not expect to attend university because his family was of modest means. However, a period of massive inflation followed the end of the First World War, and the university fee schedule was not adjusted as the Austrian currency lost value. In this way, by the time Steven had finished school, the cost of a higher education had dropped and he was able to continue his studies. He read mathematics and received a Dr. Phil. Degree in 1925. One of his first appointments was in Romania where he was an actuarial advisor to the Romanian government. He eventually returned to Vienna to continue his work as an actuary and was married there in 1929.

In the early 20th century, Vienna was a hive of intellectual activity. It was the city of Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler, Karl Popper, Gábor Szegő, Kurt Gödel, Oskar Morgenstern and so many others. It was a progressive society known as "Rotes Wien" (Red Vienna) between 1918 and 1934, when the social democrats introduced such measures as the eight hour day, subsidized workers’ housing and reform of the education system. However, the 1930’s also saw the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy, and Austria was not exempt from this movement. In 1934 there was a brief civil war when the chancellor, Dollfuss, had the army shell parts of Vienna that were in the hands of a socialist militia. In 1938, Austria was occupied (the Anschluss) and incorporated into Hitler’s German state. In 1939, Steven, wife Eva and their two children, Hedy and Robert, fled Austria. The children were sent to Sweden and Eva was admitted to the UK as a domestic servant, but Steven had to find another way to obtain an entry visa. Steven’s friend Karl Popper had already left Austria and, as a New Zealand resident and lecturer in philosophy at Canterbury University College, he found Steven a job and helped him to obtain the necessary travel documents. Steven was then able to enter England because he was merely in transit. The plan was to reunite the family in England and then leave for New Zealand, but before that could happen, the Second World War started and the Vajdas were briefly interned [] as “enemy aliens”. They were housed in a camp on the Isle of Man with other refugees from across Europe. The internees organized a school for their children and, of course, Steven taught mathematics. Most of the internees were released after several months and Steven found employment as an actuary.

Career in the United Kingdom

Meanwhile, mathematicians were in demand to staff the newly formed military operational research groups. H. Seal who was with the Admiralty O.R. group, had read Steven’s research publications in the "Bulletin des actuaires suisses", and when he found that Steven was in England he sought him out and proposed that he join the war effort. This was not an easy hire, because Steven was still classed as an enemy alien, but Seal would not be denied and after much bureaucratic manoeuvring, Steven joined the Royal Naval Scientific Service of the British Admiralty. When the war ended, Seal saw to it that Steven was one of the first “aliens” to be given British citizenship. Steven stayed with the Admiralty until 1964, holding such appointments as Assistant Director of Operational Research and Head of the Mathematical Group. In 1964, he “retired” for the first time.

In 1964, Steven became Professor of Operational Research at the University of Birmingham, where, along with K.B. Haley and others, he contributed his great strengths to the development of programs of study and research. He frequently invited well known colleagues such as Martin Beale and Frank Harary to speak to the staff and graduate students. He participated in various NATO-sponsored scientific summer schools as both a lecturer and an advisor. Upon his second “retirement” in 1967 he continued at Birmingham in a research appointment in mathematical statistics, working with Henry Daniels [,,216976,00.html] , David Wishart and Vic Barnett. He stayed until 1973, when, at the behest of Professor Pat Rivett [] , he once again “retired” in order to become Visiting Professor of Mathematics at Sussex University. With colleagues such as H. Paul Williams, he lectured, supervised research and tutored students, wrote and attended seminars and conferences. He was sought after not only as a speaker at mathematics conferences but also as a simultaneous translator, because of his linguistic abilities and his understanding of the subject matter. He remained an active member of the Sussex staff until he died in 1995 in Brighton.


Steven Vajda had a lively spirit and a gentle sense of humour. He would sometimes tell stories about himself, such as his tale of crossing the Canadian border shortly after the war. Steven was on an official trip to the USA and he was, of course, using his new British passport, after several years without proper travel documents. He crossed into Canada to see Niagara Falls. Entering Canada with a British passport was no problem, but when he returned to the US, the border control officer looked at him unsympathetically, took his passport into his sentry box and thumbed through it. He then looked out at Steven and said in a stern voice, “Do you know what I’m going to do with your passport?” Steven, visions of a seized passport and internment flashing before him, offered a meek, “No… what?”, to which the officer replied “I’m going to stamp it.”

Steven enjoyed the democratic spirit and freedom of movement that a British passport represented. Once, while attending a conference in Vienna while that city was still subject to a postwar, Soviet-supervised, neutrality, Steven was stopped by a policeman for jaywalking. Several fellow mathematicians saw him remonstrating with the officer of the law and pointing to his passport. Later, his colleagues insisted that Steven was playing at not speaking German, but he said rather that he was affirming his right, as a British subject, to walk where and when he pleased.

Despite his dislike of some of the Austrian governments of the 20th century, Steven remained a Viennese, a Habsburg-era Austro-Hungarian at heart. He was a man of great culture. The last time that I saw him, shortly before his death, my wife and I visited the Brighton Pavilion, now a museum, with him. Knowing that my wife is an art-history graduate, he turned to her and, with a twinkle in his eye, said, “I am just a mathematician, tell me all about this building and the paintings it contains.” As it happened, she had in fact read a good deal about the Pavilion during her studies and she did quite well. Steven gave her a good grade, and then guided us through the galleries, speaking masterfully and in great detail about the paintings and of the relationships between trends in painting and music throughout the ages. His font of knowledge went far beyond mathematics.


*"Theory of Games and Linear Programming"(1956)
*"Readings in Linear Programming" (1958)
*"Introduction to Linear Programming and the Theory of Games" (1960)
*"Mathematical Programming" (1961)
*"Mathematics of Experimental Design" (1970)
*"Probabilistic Programming" (1972)
*"Theory of Linear and Nonlinear Programming" (1974)
*"Mathematics of Manpower Planning" (1978)
*"Handbook of Applicable Mathematics: Supplement" (1990), co-authored with Walter Ledermann, Emlyn Lloyd and Carol Alexander
*"Mathematical Games and How to Play Them" (1992)
*"A Mathematical Kaleidoscope: Applications in Industry, Business and Science" (1995), co-authored with by Brian Conolly
*"Fibonacci and Lucas Numbers, and the Golden Section: Theory and Applications" (2008)


Additionally, this article is based on the following publications and on over thirty years of personal communicationsDubious|date=September 2008.

*Bather, John; Obituaries : Stefan Vajda; The Independent, (London), Jan 1, 1996 []
*Haley K.B. and Williams H.P; The work of Professor Steven Vajda 1901–1995 ; Journal of the Operational Research Society, Volume 49, Number 3, 1 March 1998 , p. 298-301; []
*Shutler, M.; Editorial: The life of Steven Vajda; IMA; J Management Math.1997; 8: 193-194; []
*Author’s biography appearing in Mathematical Programming (by Steven Vajda), Addison-Wesley, 1961

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