Cybernetics ...
  "the science and art of understanding"... - Humberto Maturana
  "interfaces hard competence with the hard problems of the soft sciences" - Heinz von Foerster
The Subject of Cybernetics

on the shoulders of giants
Chapter 2: The Coalescence of Cybernetics

Noted Contributors
to Cybernetics

TABLE OF CONTENTS: Our History of Cybernetics

  Chapter 1 of our history - the 'prehistory' of cybernetics - is presented on our History Main Page. To see the prehistory chapter, simply click on the button to the left to return to the History Main Page.

  Here on this webpage we discuss the coalescence of cybernetics in the 1940's.

  Chapter 3 discusses the proliferation of cybernetics after the 1940's. To access Chapter 3, simply click the button to the left.

  We have compiled a listing of additional online and published resources for exploring cybernetics' history. To review these resources, simply click the button to the left.

A REFERENCE AID: A Timeline for the History of Cybernetics

  To provide a succinct reference aid on this complex history, we have compiled a timeline for cybernetics. Clicking on the button at the left will open up a new window with the timeline. You can then keep it handy on-screen as you read the historical review that follows.

INTRODUCTION: The Coalescence of Cybernetics in the 1940's


Stafford Beer

  "Cybernetics had its origins in the early 1940s, when a group of distinguished scientists was gathered together in Mexico to deal with various assignments associated with the second world war. It is well-documented how they discovered that -- precisely because of their eminence in different fields -- they found it difficult to talk to each other about anything serious. So they decided to choose a topic that was nobody's speciality, but of interest to everyone. And their eminence was really important for another reason: they had nothing to prove. They decided to discuss the nature of control."

What is Cybernetics?

Curiously, it is easy to view the coalescence of cybernetics in two distinct ways - as an event practically guaranteed to occur in the context of the times, and as an event unlikely to have occurred absent several fortuitous circumstances.
  In Chapter 1: Prehistory we reviewed the factors that practically guaranteed the rise of cybernetics or something very much like it. As illustrated in our historical timeline (see above), there were multiple fields where attentions to 'systems' and 'information' and 'control' were proliferating in the first half of the 20th century. These included communications engineering, control theory, biology, theoretical mathematics, and psychology, among many others. By the 1940's the air was pregnant with several themes that would come to define cybernetics. One final theme - circularity - would serve as the focus for bringing together seminal thinkers in critical gatherings to establish the new field.

By the same token, the appearance of cybernetics as such and at that time would have been much less likely if the following things had not occurred:

  • World War II motivated technical (and hence theoretical) advances in controlling military devices (e.g., Wiener's work on antiaircraft battery controllers)
  • Political and social turbulence in Europe motivated many key people to emigrate to the UK and the US.
  • The exigencies of global warfare motivated innovations in logistics and administration requiring quantifiable optimization of systemic entities (e.g., operations research)
  • A set of dedicated and unconventional thinkers with similar interests and from different fields wound up running into each other.
  • This set of thinkers happened to be grappling with similar issues and themes in each of their respective projects.
  • An organization (the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation) interested in fostering medical innovations sponsored a meeting at which these disparate folks were afforded a space to share ideas.
  • The Macy Foundation was sufficiently perceptive to recognize the promise latent in that first meeting and far-sighted enough to then support a series of conferences in this still-nebulous area.
  • Two seemingly improbable additions to this 'hard science' population (Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson) became so enthusiastic about the new ideas as to vigorously and effectively evangelize the new field outside its original natural science and engineering context.
In the following subsections we shall present a summary overview of how these improbable events precipitated an immanent set of ideas into the new field of cybernetics.

SPONSORSHIP AND SUPPORT: The Macy Foundation and 2 Key Individuals

The Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation
(Sponsor of Cybernetics' Birth)
  Before examining the crucial meetings of the 1940's, one must make note of those meetings' sponsor - the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation - often simply called 'the Macy Foundation'. This foundation remains an active organization based in New York.

It is commonly, but mistakenly, assumed this foundation is related to the famous Macy's department store in New York City. In fact, it is named for a sea captain whose family's wealth derived first from maritime commerce and later from industrial endeavors. Josiah Macy, Jr. was a noted philanthropist who died young from yellow fever. In 1930 his daughter Kate Macy Ladd endowed a foundation in his name and in his memory, dedicated to advancement in medicine and medical-related science.

In its first 15 years of existence, the Foundation directed its grants toward medical research relating to both physical and psychological maladies. It also established programs supporting conferences and publications on these and related topics. In later years, the Foundation directed its support increasingly toward medical education rather than basic science. As of the present day, the Foundation states its mission as follows:

"The Foundation supports programs designed to improve the education of health professionals in the interest of the health of the public, and to enhance the representation of minorities in the health profession."

The 'Macy Men':
Frank and Fremont-Smith

Lawrence K. Frank
(circa 1965)
(No Photo of Frank Fremont-Smith Available)
  Though citation of the Macy Foundation explains the source of werewithal for the cybernetics group's conferences, one might still wonder about the source of interest and even enthusiasm that caused this medical foundation to sponsor something not often associated with medicine per se. This motivation can be attributed to two persons - Lawrence K. Frank and Frank Fremont-Smith.

In the late 1930's Frank had been a senior executive with the Macy Foundation, where he was a friend and mentor to Fremont-Smith. Frank's longtime interests included child development, and he is often considered to be the godfather of the American child development field. At the time the cybernetics group coalesced, he was what we'd now call a 'free-floating consultant'. Frank was no stranger to cybernetics' prehistory. He'd been intrigued by Walter Cannon's 1929 writings on 'homeostasis' and how this concept might pertain to child development. His role in the rise of American social science was significant, though perhaps his most important contributions pertained to fostering programs and careers. At the time of the first cybernetics meetings, Frank and his longtime friend Margaret Mead represented a formidable social science contingent.

One of the careers Frank fostered was that of Frank Fremont-Smith, who by the 1940's was the head of the Macy Foundation's medical office. Fremont-Smith's familiarity with cybernetics' prehistory dated back to around 1930, when he helped establish an informal conversational network on subjects such a neurophysiology and Cannon's 'homeostasis'. In his Macy executive role, Fremont-Smith promoted interdisciplinary conferences as platforms for advancing knowledge. By the time the cybernetics group first gathered, he was both an effective organizer and an interested participant.

THE ACTUAL 'FIRST MEETING': The 1942 'Cerebral Inhibition Meeting'

The Cerebral Inhibition Meeting
(May 1942)
  It is common to correlate cybernetics' origins with a series of 10 conferences sponsored by the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation from 1946 through 1953. This cursory approach overlooks the fact that those conferences might never have occurred had the key participants not met in a small May 1942 meeting where they first exchanged ideas and generated the enthusiasm which would motivate those later conferences. The title of this meeting, set up by Frank Fremont-Smith, was 'Cerebral Inhibition'. Attendance was by invitation only, and the two topics on the agenda were hypnotism and conditioned reflex. Milton Erickson and Howard Liddell were the featured speakers on these topics, respectively. The planned agenda went well, but it turned out to be merely peripheral to the event's most significant outcome.

This was the first meeting among core members of the 'cybernetics group'.   The attendees included Lawrence Frank, Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, psychiatrist Warren McCulloch, Mexican physiologist Arturo Rosenblueth, and psychiatrist Lawrence Kubie.
Warren McCulloch

Margaret Mead / Gregory Bateson
Anthropology / Anthropology

Arturo Rosenblueth

    These 6 people would later become members of the persistent 'core group' for the more famous 'Macy Conferences' (1946 - 1953).

Rosenblueth introduces the notions of teleological mechanisms and circular causality   It was Arturo Rosenblueth's presentation of ideas he'd been developing with Norbert Wiener and Julian Bigelow that drew everyone's attention. Rosenblueth outlined a conceptual agenda based on similarities between behaviors of both machines and organisms that were interpretable as being 'goal-directed'. This goal-directedness (long spurned by hard science) was framed in terms of definitive and deterministic 'teleological mechanisms.' 'Teleology' was transformed from philosophical mumbo-jumbo to concrete mechanism through the invocation of 'circular causality' in a system, whereby new behaviors were influenced by 'feedback' deriving from immediately preceding behaviors. This approach allowed one to address apparent purposiveness with reference to the present and the immediate past, without having to invoke references to possible or future events.

Rosenblueth's presentaton resonated with everyone present - most particularly with Bateson and McCulloch, each of whom immediately saw linkages between these new concepts and issues in their respective fields. Mead would later claim she'd been both so excited and so absorbed in the lecture that she didn't noticed she'd broken a tooth.

However, American involvement in WWII was underway, and the various participants were scattered to their wartime duties. For example, Bateson undertook assignments in the Pacific region, while Rosenblueth and McCulloch returned to their research at MIT.

The following year the content of Rosenblueth's presentation was published as:

Rosenblueth, A., Wiener, N., and J. Bigelow, "Behavior, purpose and teleology", Philosophy of Science, Vol. 10 (1943), pp. 18 - 24.


A Push to Follow Up on the 1942 Meeting   As soon as the war ended, Bateson contacted Fremont-Smith, pushing for some sort of conference to follow up on the concepts from the 1942 meeting. As it turned out, McCulloch had already been pushing for the same thing since immediately after the 1942 event. Fremont-Smith had begun arranging a conference for March 1946 to be chaired by McCulloch. It was originally planned to include scholars from the fields closest to the topics being addressed by McCulloch and his colleague Walter Pitts (biology, neural physiology, and mathematics). However, Fremont-Smith accepted Bateson's recommendation to invite selected people from the social and behavioral sciences as well.

The legendary 'Macy Conferences' were thus set in motion. A total of 10 conferences were held from 1946 through 1953. The first nine were held at the Beekman Hotel in New York City, and the tenth was held in Princeton New Jersey.

Frank Fremont-Smith established a conference format which would persist throughout the entire series. The conferences were to be held on a regular recurring basis (initially twice a year). Each conference was scheduled to last two full days. Although provision was made for the presentation of papers, the conferences mainly revolved around conversations and debates, many of which occurred outside the context of a particular presentation. Each conference had a designated chairperson (Warren McCulloch), and Frank Fremont-Smith served as an occasional referee in keeping things on track and moving along.

Conference Documentation   There were attempts to make audio recordings and transcriptions of the first conferences, but these efforts had very limited success. Warren McCulloch began compiling and distributing summary reports on conference events after the third conference. Beginning with the sixth conference provision was made for recording and compiling a publishable set of proceedings. New arrival Heinz von Foerster edited these documents, aided by Margaret Mead and Hans Lukas Teuber. As a result, the bulk of the documentation for the first five conferences can only be found in (e.g.) participants' surviving notes, a few rare copies of McCulloch's reports, and miscellaneous writings from those participants whose papers were archived. The subsequent proceedings for the sixth through the tenth conferences are relatively rare. In other words, the remarkable content of the Macy Conferences is incompletely documented and hard to find.
Helpful Hint for Further Exploration:   There is a scarcity of primary documentation from the Macy Conferences. In addition, the cybernetics movement was long ignored as a topic of historical description and analysis. The single best historical reference on the Macy Conferences is Steven Joshua Heims' book Constructing a Social Science for Postwar America: The Cybernetics Group (MIT Press, 1991). A second recommendation (more a topical than historical analysis) is Jean-Pierre Dupuy's The Mechanization of the Mind (Princeton University Press, 2000).

For more information on these and other resources for further exploration, please consult our Additional Resources Page.


The Conference Attendees
  A core group of approximately 20 recurring participants was drawn from engineering, biology (particularly fields dealing with neural systems), medicine, and the social sciences (most particularly psychology). As time went on, some core group members left (or, in Kurt Lewin's case - died) and were replaced by others.

This core group was augmented by over 40 invited guests who came and went during the conference series. The vast majority of these guests only attended a single conference. It is interesting to note that some of the people we strongly associate with the birth and proliferation of cybernetics were in fact guest attendees and not members of the core group. For example, Claude Shannon (of information theory fame) attended a total of 3 Macy Conferences. W. Ross Ashby (one of the most cited of all cyberneticians) only attended one conference, as did William Grey-Walter (the robotics pioneer). Of the two speakers originally featured at the 1942 Cerebral Inhibition Meeting, only Howard Liddell would make a guest appearance at the subsequent Macy Conferences.

Macy Conference Attendees
  On our separate Conference Attendees Page we provide:

  • A set of names, fields, and available photographs for the original core group (in addition to the aforementioned Bateson, Frank, Mead, McCulloch, and Rosenblueth)
  • A similar set of citations and available photographs for subsequent members of the core group
  • A summary listing of the 40+ guest attendees

THE 'MACY CONFERENCES': Ten Events from 1946 through 1953

The Legendary Conferences   The coalescence of cybernetics in the 1940's was a historical process that involved many interactions among a variety of thoughtful and inquisitive people.

These people, all eminent in their many respective fields, would go on to disseminate their individual impressions of and elaborations upon 'cybernetics' for decades thereafter. This made for a new field whose many facets make it easy to treat as a significant intellectual innovation but difficult to delineate as a coherent whole. The historical records for the field's birth have never been readily accessible, owing to an almost total lack of documentation for the first 5 conferences and the obscure status of the last 5 events' proceedings. This resulted in a reliance on personal recollections and anecdotal evidence in exploring how that process occurred. In other words, the process' product (cybernetics itself) is many things to many people, and the process' narrative is either a mystery or a matter of hearsay. It is therefore no surprise that the coalescence of cybernetics has been mythologized by both its adherents and its critics.

Macy Conference Summary
  On our separate Macy Conference Summary Page we provide:

  • A listing of the 10 conferences, with dates and locations
  • A listing of the core group and guest attendees to illustrate the shifts in conference population over the course of the 10 events
  • A summary listing events, issues, and activities culled from a variety of reference sources
  • A summary categorization (based on Jean-Pierre Dupuy's analysis) of the topics discussed at the 10 conferences

Noted Contributors
to Cybernetics

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The Subject of Cybernetics

on the shoulders of giants