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