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History of Cybernetics and Systems Science

Perhaps one of the best ways of seeing the strength and the impact of the systemic approach is to follow its birth and development in the lives of men and institutions.

The Search for New Tools

We need new tools with which to approach organized complexity, interdependence, and regulation. These tools emerged in the United States in the 1940s from the cross-fertilisation of ideas that is common in the melting pot of the large universities.

In illustrating a new current of thought, it is often useful to follow a thread. Our thread will be the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In three steps, each of about ten years, MIT was to go from the birth of cybernetics to the most critical issue, the debate on limits to growth. Each of these advances was marked by many travels back and forth--typical of the systemic approach--between machine, man, and society. In the course of this circulation of ideas there occurred transfers of method and terminology that later fertilized unexplored territory.

In the forties the first step forward led from the machine to the living organism, transferring from one to the other the ideas of feedback and finality and opening the way for automation and computers. In the fifties it was the return from the living organism to the machine with the emergence of the important concepts of memory and pattern recognition, of adaptive phenomena and learning, and new advances in bionics (Bionics attempts to build electronic machines that imitate the functions of certain organs of living beings.): artificial intelligence and industrial robots. There was also a return from the machine to the living organism, which accelerated progress in neurology, perception, the mechanisms of vision In the sixties MIT saw the extension of cybernetics and system theory to industry, society, and ecology.

Three men can be regarded as the pioneers of these great breakthroughs: the mathematician Norbert Wiener, who died in 1964, the neurophysiologist Warren McCulloch, who died in 1969; and Jay Forrester, professor at the Sloan School of Management at MIT. There are of course other men, other research teams, other universities--in the United States as well as in the rest of the world--that have contributed to the advance of cybernetics and system theory. I will mention them whenever their course of research blends with that of the MIT teams.

"Intelligent" Machines

Norbert Wiener had been teaching mathematics at MIT since 1919. Soon after his arrival there he had become acquainted with the neurophysiologist Arturo Rosenblueth, onetime collaborator of Walter B. Cannon (who gave homeostasis its name) and now at Harvard Medical School. Out of this new friendship would be born, twenty years later, cybernetics. With Wiener's help Rosenblueth set up small interdisciplinary teams to explore the no man's land between the established sciences.

In 1940 Wiener worked with a young engineer, Julian H. Bigelow, to develop automatic range finders for antiaircraft guns. Such servomechanisms are able to predict the trajectory of an airplane by taking into account the elements of past trajectories. During the course of their work Wiener and Bigelow were struck by two astonishing facts: the seem.ingly "intelligent" behavior of these machines and the "diseases" that could affect them. Theirs appeared to be "intelligent" behavior because they dealt with "experience" (the recording of past events) and predictions of the future. There was also a strange defect in performance: if one tried to reduce the friction, the system entered into a series of uncontrollable oscillations.

Impressed by this disease of the machine, Wiener asked Rosenblueth whether such behavior was found in man. The response was affirmative: in the event of certain injuries to the cerebellum, the patient cannot lift a glass of water to his mouth; the movements are amplified until the contents of the glass spill on the ground. From this Wiener inferred that in order to control a finalized action (an action with a purpose) the circulation of information needed for control must form "a closed loop allowing the evaluation of the effects of one's actions and the adaptation of future conduct based on past performances." This is typical of the guidance system of the antiaircraft gun, and it is equally characteristic of the nervous system when it orders the muscles to make a movement whose effects are then detected by the senses and fed back to the brain.

Thus Wiener and Bigelow discovered the closed loop of information necessary to correct any action--the negative feedback loop--and they generalised this discovery in terms of the human organism.

During this period the multidisciplinary teams of Rosenblueth were being formed and organized. Their purpose was to approach the study of living organisms from the viewpoint of a servomechanisms engineer and, conversely, to consider servomechanisms with the experience of the physiologist. An early seminar at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton in 1942 brought together mathematicians, physiologists, and mechanical and electrical engineers. In light of its success, a series of ten seminars was arranged by the Josiah Macy Foundation. One man working with Rosenblueth in getting these seminars under way was the neurophysiologist Warren McCulloch, who was to play a considerable role in the new field of cybernetics. In 1948 two basic publications marked an epoch already fertile with new ideas: Norbert Wiener's Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, and The Mathematical Theory of Communication by Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver. The latter work founded information theory.

Participants at the 10th Macy Conference.

The ideas of Wiener, Bigelow, and Rosenblueth caught fire like a trail of powder. Other groups were formed in the United States and around the world, notably the Society for General Systems Research whose publications deal with disciplines far removed from engineering such as sociology, political science, and psychiatry.

The seminars of the Josiah Macy Foundation continued, opening to new disciplines: anthropology with Margaret Mead, economics with Oskar Morgenstern. Mead urged Wiener to extend his ideas to society as a whole. Above all, the period was marked by the profound influence of Warren McCulloch, director of the Neuropsychiatric Institute at the University of Illinois.

At the conclusion of the work of his group on the organization of the cortex of the brain, and especially after his discussions with Walter Pitts, a brilliant, twenty-two-year-old mathematician, McCulloch understood that a beginning of the comprehension of cerebral mechanisms (and their simulation by machines) could come about only through the cooperation of many disciplines. McCulloch himself moved from neurophysiology to mathematics, from mathematics to engineering.

Walter Pitts became one of Wiener's disciples and contributed to the exchange of ideas between Wiener and McCulloch; it was he who succeeded in convincing McCulloch to install himself at MIT in 1952 with his entire team of physiologists.

From Cybernetics to System Dynamics

In this famous melting pot, ideas boiled. From one research group to another the vocabularies of engineering and physiology were used interchangeably. Little by little the basics of a common language of cybernetics was created: learning, regulation, adaptation, self-organization, perception, memory. Influenced by the ideas of Bigelow, McCulloch developed an artificial retina in collaboration with Louis Sutro of the laboratory of instrumentation at MIT. The theoretical basis was provided by his research on the eye of the frog, performed in 1959 in collaboration with Lettvin, Maturana, and Pitts. The need to make machines imitate certain functions typical of living organisms contributed to the speeding up of progress in the understanding of cerebral mechanisms. This was the beginning of bionics and the research on artificial intelligence and robots.

Paralleling the work of the teams of Wiener and McCulloch at MIT, another group tried to utilize cybernetics on a wider scope. This was the Society for General Systems Research, created in 1954 and led by the biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy. Many researchers were to join him: the mathematician A. Rapoport, the biologist W. Ross Ashby, the biophysicist N. Rashevsky, the economist K. Boulding. IIn 1954 the General Systems Yearbooks began to appear; their influence was to be profound on all those who sought to expand the cybernetic approach to social systems and the industrial firm in particular.

During the fifties a tool was developed and perfected that would permit organized complexity to be approached from a totally new angle--the computer. The first ones were ENIAC (1946) and EDVAC or EDSAC (1947). One of the fastest was Whirlwind 11, constructed at MIT in 1951. It used--for the first time--a superfast magnetic memory invented by a young electronics engineer from the servomechanisms laboratory, Jay W. Forrester.

As head of the Lincoln Laboratory, Forrester was assigned by the Air Force in 1952 to coordinate the implementation of an alert and defense system, the SAGE system, using radar and computers for the first time. Its mission was to detect and prevent possible attack on American territory by enemy rockets. Forrester realized the importance of the systemic approach in the conception and control of complex organizations involving men and machines in "real time": the machines had to be capable of making vital decisions as the information arrived.

In 1961, having become a professor at the Sloan School of Management at MIT, Forrester created Industrial Dynamics. His object was to regard all industries as cybernetics systems in order to simulate and to try to predict their behavior.

In 1964, confronted with the problems of the growth and decay of cities, he extended the industrial dynamics concept to urban systems (Urban Dynamics). Finally, in 1971, he generalized his earlier works by creating a new discipline, system dynamics, and published World Dynamics. This book was the basis of the work of Dennis H. Meadows and his team on the limits to growth. Financed by the Club of Rome these works were to have worldwide impact under the name MIT Report

History of the word "cybernetics"

Cybernetics is the discipline that studies communication and control in living beings and the machines built by man. A more philosophical definition, suggested by Louis Couffignal in 1958, considers cybernetics as "the art of assuring efficiency of action. " The word cybernetics was reinvented by Norbert Wiener in 1948 from the Greek kubernetes, pilot, or rudder. The word was first used by Plato in the sense of "the art of steering" or "the art of government ". Ampère used the word cybernetics to denote "the study of ways of governing." One of the very first cybernetics mechanisms to control the speed of the steam engine, invented by James Watt and Matthew Boulton in 1788, was called a governor, or a ball regulator. Cybernetics has in fact the same root as government: the art of managing and directing highly complex systems.

See also: the origin of cybernetics and the biographies of the most important cybernetic thinkers at the cybernetics page of the ASC

Copyright© 2000 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

J. de Rosnay

Oct 24, 2000 (modified)
1978 (created)


Reference material

Cybernetics and Systems Theory

What are Cybernetics and Systems Science?

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