Today, we associate the relationship between feedback, control, and computing with Norbert Wiener’s 1948 formulation of cybernetics. But the theoretical and practical foundations for cybernetics, control engineering, and digital computing were laid earlier, between the two world wars. In Between Human and Machine: Feedback, Control, and Computing before Cybernetics, David A. Mindell shows how the modern sciences of systems emerged from disparate engineering cultures and their convergence during World War II.
Mindell examines four different arenas of control systems research in the United States between the world wars: naval fire control, the Sperry Gyroscope Company, the Bell Telephone Laboratories, and Vannevar Bush’s laboratory at MIT. Each of these institutional sites had unique technical problems, organizational imperatives, and working environments, and each fostered a distinct engineering culture. Each also developed technologies to represent the world in a machine.
At the beginning of World War II, President Roosevelt established the National Defense Research Committee, one division of which was devoted to control systems. Mindell shows how the NDRC brought together representatives from the four pre-war engineering cultures, and how its projects synthesized conceptions of control, communications, and computing. By the time Wiener articulated his vision, these ideas were already suffusing through engineering. They would profoundly influence the digital world.
As a new way to conceptualize the history of computing, this book will be of great interest to historians of science, technology, and culture, as well as computer scientists and theorists. Between Human and Machine: Feedback, Control, and Computing before Cybernetics