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Celebrating statisticians: Walter Shewhart

The statistician we are celebrating for the month of July in this International Year of Statistics is known as the “father of statistical quality control”: Walter A. Shewhart.

Birth/Death: Shewhart was born in New Canton, Illinois, on March 18, 1891. He died on March 11, 1967, in Troy Hills, New Jersey.

Education: He received both a bachelor’s (1913) and master’s degree (1914) from the University of Illinois in physics. He studied physics at the University of California at Berkeley and was awarded his doctorate in 1917.

Awards/Recognitions: Founding member, fellow and president of the Institute of Mathematical Statistics; founding member, first honorary member and first Shewhart Medalist of the American Society for Quality; fellow and President of the American Statistical Association; Fellow of the International Statistical Institute; Honorary fellow of the Royal Statistical Society; Holley medal of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers; and Honorary Doctor of Science, Indian Statistical Institute in Calcutta.

Career background: During the first decade of the 20th century, the phone system designed by Bell Labs and mainly manufactured by Western Electric grew from a small local system to a transcontinental communications system. Shewhart worked at Western Electric as a mathematician. With the growth of the phone system came obstacles and challenges. There were no telephone ringers, and no hang-up hooks; the cables were faulty, there were no dials, buttons, or even dial tone. All of these integral parts of a phone system which we take for granted today were yet to be invented.  “The scientists and engineers at Bell Labs inhabited what one researcher there would aptly describe, much later, as ‘a problem rich environment’.(Gertner, 2012) To ensure these new parts and inventions were built using the specified requirements and in a quality manner, Shewhart invented a statistical management technique, which was soon known as “quality control.”

1924 was a big year for Shewhart: Most of Shewhart’s professional career was spent working as a mathematician or engineer at Western Electric from 1918 to 1924, and then at Bell Laboratories on the technical staff from 1925 until his retirement in 1956. When Shewhart joined the Inspection Engineering Department at the Western Electric Hawthorne plant in 1918, industrial quality was limited to inspecting finished products and removing defective items. That all changed in May 1924. Shewhart's boss, George Edwards, recalled:

"Dr Shewhart prepared a little memorandum only about a page in length. About a third of that page was given over to a simple diagram which we would all recognize today as a schematic control chart. That diagram, and the short text which preceded and followed it, set forth all of the essential principles and considerations which are involved in what we know today as process quality control."

I tried to find a copy of this memo, but couldn’t find a copy of it online or any Shewhart historical archives. Let me know if you know where it is.

In a tribute to Shewhart in 1967, statistician Ellis R. Ott shared another story about the development of control charts: “Shewhart simulated theoretical models by marking numbers on three different sets of metal-rimmed tags. Then he used an ordinary kitchen bowl – the Shewhart bowl – to hold each set of chips as different sized samples were drawn from his three different populations. There was a bowl, and it played a vital role in the development of ideas and formulation of methods culminating in the Shewhart control charts.”

While Shewhart’s ideas on control charts were adopted at Western Electric, they had limited impact outside the company until the late 1930s when he started working with W. Edwards Deming of the War Department. Deming invited Shewhart to give a series of talks at the War Department, which Deming himself later edited for publication. Soon thereafter, Shewhart, Deming and other engineers and statisticians worked with the War Department, creating a series of sampling inspection plans that were published as the MILSTD (military standard) series. MILSTD set the standards that are still used in the United States and throughout the world.

“I write as one outside the Bell System who had the privilege of working intimately with Dr. Shewhart over a period of years. This could happen only because he was always glad to help anyone. Actually, he never thought of himself as helping anyone: he was simply glad to talk and absorb thoughts from anyone that was genuinely struggling to improve his understanding of the statistical method – interchanging ideas was his way to put it,” Deming wrote in 1967.

Shewhart’s influence on quality control continues today. Shortly before his death, he remarked to members of ASQ that they “extended the field beyond my early visions and saw areas of service that pleased and amazed me. I hope that you continue.”


  • Shewhart, Walter A[ndrew]. (1917). A study of the accelerated motion of small drops through a viscous medium. Lancaster, PA: Press of the New Era Printing Company.
  • Shewhart, Walter A[ndrew]. (1931). Economic control of quality of manufactured product. New York: D. Van Nostrand Company.
  • Shewhart, Walter A[ndrew]. (1939). Statistical method from the viewpoint of quality control. (W. Edwards Deming). Washington, D.C., The Graduate School, the Department of Agriculture
  • References:

    "Western Electric - A Brief History". The Porticus Centre. Retrieved 2009-04-10.

    W. Edwards Deming (1967) "Walter A. Shewhart, 1891-1967," American Statistician 21: 39-40.

    Gertner, Jon (2012) “The Idea Factory Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation.” ISBN 978-1-59420-328-2.

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    1 Comment

    Chris Hemedinger wrote:

    And the SAS/QC product offers an extremely rich procedure that bears Dr. Shewhart's name -- offering over a dozen different types of QC charts.