While it is impossible to assign credit for the conception of Cybernetics to a single individual, certainly one of the people most responsible for its development and popularity as well as its theoretical shape was the mathematician Norbert Wiener (see Wiener, Norbert). Wiener wrote several popular books in which he coined the word "cybernetics," elaborated on its central concepts, and sought to illuminate its ethical and social implications. In so doing, he helped to spread the insights to be gained from studying control and communication systems, and also to heighten an awareness of the ethical and social consequences of automation and mass communication.

As the son of one of the world's leading linguists, Wiener's etymology of "cybernetics" is itself instructive of his philosophy. He derived the word from the Greek kubernts meaning "steersman" or "ship pilot." The term was meant to honor the early work of the physicist Clerk Maxwell (1868) on the feedback mechanism of the centrifugal governor for regulating steam engines, which was invented by the Scottish engineer James Watt in 1790. Watt had derived the name of his "governor" from the corrupted Latin gubernator, which is the root of the French word gouverneur, from which the English word "government" is derived. As the name indicates, cybernetics is meant to be the science of self-regulating and self-organizing systems by means of the communication of information.

Wiener did not coin the word until the summer of 1947, but he began the work leading up to the theory behind it in 1941, and published his theory in 1943. Like many of the scientific projects which occurred during this era, the collaboration of the Rosenblueth, Wiener and Bigelow (1943) paper was a result of the U.S. becoming involved in World War II. In this instance, Warren Weaver of the National Defense Research Council had brought the authors together to work on a device for targeting and controlling anti-aircraft guns. Each member of this collaboration contributed something crucial to the idea of information feedback.

Arturo Rosenblueth was a Mexican physiologist and professor at the Harvard Medical School who collaborated closely with the physiologist Walter Cannon. Prior to World War II, Wiener and Rosenblueth had known each other from a monthly dinner of scientists from different fields who met at Harvard's Vanderbilt Hall to present work in progress and discuss the possibility of bridging the gaps between scientific specialties by developing a shared language for scientists. It was Rosenblueth who introduced Wiener and Bigelow to Cannon's concept of "homeostasis" (see Cybernetics).

Julian Bigelow was an electrical engineer who would later go on to build the IAS Machine with John von Neumann. During the war years he worked on the electronics and servomechanisms used to control heavy anti-aircraft guns automatically. The problems encountered in these control systems included the tendency of the guns to "overshoot" and swing past the point at which they were supposed to stop. The guns would then have to be moved in the other direction to compensate for the error. Often this would result in a continuous oscillation back-and-forth over the correct position called "hunting". Bigelow had been studying ways to use a feedback signal to minimize these oscillations.

Wiener had been working in pure mathematics on the problem of prediction in time-series (1949), and saw the targeting problem as one of predicting the trajectory of a plane based on its historical flight path so as to anticipate its future position and compensate for the time it would take the shell to reach plane. The difficultly of doing this lay in the ability of a plane's pilot to take evasive maneuvers to avoid being shot down.

In their 1943 paper, Rosenblueth, Wiener and Bigelow concluded that the targeting problem was intimately related to the control problem. They argued that the solution to both problems depended on the ability of the gun to continuously correct itself based on the moment-to-moment changes in the position of the plane and the direction of the gun. The paper also outlined a theory for how systems could be interpreted as having goals, in virtue of their behavior of acting so as to achieving those goals. This challenged the psychological theory of behaviorism which interpreted behavior purely as conditioned responses to stimuli, and resisted explanatory appeals to goals as being subjective and scientifically inaccessible.

In his 1948 book Cybernetics, Wiener laid out the relationships between statistical mechanics and time-series, information and communication, feedback loops and oscillations, and the analogy between computing machines and the brain which form the foundations of cybernetics. The book also included an examination of certain neurological disorders that resulted in tremors which closely resembled the "hunting" of anti-aircraft guns. In the second edition of 1961, Wiener included two new chapters: one which addressed learning and self-reproducing machines, and one which addressed brain waves and the self-organization of the brain. While this volume was meant to be accessible to a scientifically informed audience, Wiener's habit of expressing his ideas in complicated mathematical formula made this work inaccessible to the general public.

In 1950, Wiener published a companion book, The Human Use of Human Beings, which was widely read by general audiences. This book expressed Wiener's deep concern over the ethical consequences of the new technologies which science and cybernetics were making possible. It examines the nature of language and education as the means for a society to transmit cultural knowledge. It also examines the use of law, mass communication, secrecy and espionage by political regimes to enforce, regulate and protect their systems of power and control. He expresses a deep concern that the technologies of atomic weapons could not be kept from spreading to other countries because just knowing that they are possible is a sufficient incentive to motivate scientists to find the means of building it. And so he urges intellectuals and scientists to think carefully about the consequences of their work, and whether it will really improve the state of the world in the long-run.

An even more reflective book, God & Golem Inc. (1964) addresses the implications of cybernetics for religious and other traditional ideas. Wiener takes the image of the golem, which is a being made of clay and brought to life by a sorcerer, as a metaphor for the scientist who brings machines to life with cybernetics. He uses the metaphor to develop the idea that every age has its dogmatic beliefs, and there will be those who stand up to oppose them. In the 19th century, the belief in the origins of life by special Creation was challenged by Darwin and the evolutionists. In the 20th century, a similar process was occurring whereby the special place of organisms as being "alive" and animals as having "minds" was being challenged by self-replicating and intelligent machines. In his view, this completely undermined any role for theology in explaining observable phenomena by positing a "soul," and relegated spirituality to an essentially subjective relationship with one's own beliefs.

by Peter M. Asaro

1153 words

For Further Research

Heims, Steven J. John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener: From Mathematics to the Technologies of Life and Death. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1980.

Heims, Steven J. The Cybernetics Group. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991.

Masani, Paul R. Norbert Wiener 1894-1964. Birkhauser, Germany: Basel, 1990.

Wiener, Norbert. Ex-Prodigy: My Childhood and Youth. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1953.

Wiener, Norbert. I Am a Mathematician: The Later Life of a Prodigy. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1956.

Wiener, Norbert. Norbert Wiener: Collected Works, Volumes 1-4. Edited by Paul Masani. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1976, 1979, 1981, 1985.


Rosenblueth, Arturo, Norbert Wiener and Julian Bigelow. „Behavior, Purpose, and Teleology." Philosophy of Science, 10 (1943): 18-24.

Wiener, Norbert. Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Paris: Hermann and Co., Cambridge, MA: The Technology Press, and New York, NY: John Wiley and Sons, 1948.

Wiener, Norbert. Extrapolating, Interpolating and Smoothing of Stationary Time Series with Engineering Applications. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1949.

Wiener, Norbert. God & Golem, Inc.: A Comment on Certain Points Where Cybernetics Impinges on Religion. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1964.

Wiener, Norbert. The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1950.