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THE ORIGINS OF CYBERNETICS


Many of the concepts included today in cybernetics had their origins long before the word "cybernetics" was associated with them. Self-regulating devices were constructed as early as several hundred years B.C. In the late 1700s Watt's steam engine had a governor. In 1868 James Clerk Maxwell published an article on governors. In the 1940s the study of regulatory processes became a continuing research effort. Two key articles were published in 1943 -- "Behavior, Purpose and Teleology" by Arturo Rosenblueth, Norbert Wiener, and Julian Bigelow and "A Logical Calculus of the Ideas Immanent in Nervous Activity" by Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts.

These articles were followed by a series of conferences between 1944 and 1953 on Circular Causal and Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems, chaired by Warren McCulloch and sponsored by the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation. The Macy conferences, which were attended by Ross Ashby, Gregory Bateson, Margaret Mead, Heinz Von Foerster, John von Neumann, and others laid the foundation for a new scientific field.

In 1948 Norbert Wiener, a conference participant, published his book, Cybernetics, and the conferees adopted this word as the name for the new field of study. The book generated considerable interest and some anxiety. There were fears that a science of communication and control could be used for manipulative purposes by unscrupulous governments. Wiener addressed these concerns in a subsequent book, The Human Use of Human Beings. In the years that followed, the name "cybernetics" was widely adopted in Europe. However, its use in the United States spread more slowly. Most research and education in the U.S. continued to be specialized by problem area and academic discipline. The amount of research conducted on the basic principles of cybernetics remained small relative to the amount of attention focused on applied problems.

In 1964 the American Society for Cybernetics was founded to facilitate the work of those with an interest in the field of cybernetics as a whole. Between 1964 and 1974 the American Society for Cybernetics held several conferences and began a journal, but during the late 1970s the society was less active due to the illness and death of some of its key officers. The 1980s saw a resurgence of interest due in part to a desire by many people for more communication across disciplines and in part to a feeling that the original questions that were posed were not receiving sufficient attention. The Society now holds conferences, conducts seminars on the fundamentals of cybernetics, manages a CYBCOM listserv, and maintains contacts with cyberneticians in other countries.

 


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