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


History of Cybernetics

on the shoulders of giants
BACK: History
A Timeline for the Evolution of Cybernetics

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  One good way of obtaining a historical overview of a discipline is to review a summary outline of its evolution. This page offers a summary timeline of events relevant to cybernetics.

Unfortunately, assembling a linear timeline for cybernetics is not as straightforward as is the case for other disciplines. Cybernetics precipitated out of diverse threads of work fortuitously intersecting during the 1940's. In the ensuing decades, the themes circumscribing cybernetics' original definition diverged again to engender or facilitate the rise of an even greater diversity of fields, labels, and disciplines.

The timeline below is derived from a number of reference sources. It is deliberately intended to reflect at least a sample of the many subjects and disciplines from which cybernetics descended and into which its themes subsequently flowed. In the early stages, this timeline focuses on the theme of control. As it approaches the 20th century, it begins to reflect developments in fields such as philosophy, biology, mathematics, etc.

There is no claim that this timeline is comprehensive, though it's the most detailed one to be found anywhere on the Internet. If you would like to contribute specific and significant items to be included in this timeline, please contact the Webmaster.

PREHISTORY: Setting the Stage for the Coalescence of Cybernetics

6th Century BC
  • Pythagoras and his school explore mathematical modeling of perceptual phenomena. Their mathematical orientation was such that Pythagoreans held that the ultimate constituents of all material objects are numbers, perhaps understood as geometrical points. The Pythagoreans therefore stand as the earliest known progenitors of mathematical modeling.
  • Parmenides argues that all of reality is a single, unchanging substance - arguably one of the first instances of holism in philosophy (as contrasted with religion).

5th Century BC
  • Protagoras asserts that human beings are "the measure of all things." This is often cited as the earliest formal qualification of epistemology with respect to the observer / knower.
  • The term kybernetike employed for the first (recorded) time. In The Republic", Plato invokes the word to connote 'an art of navigation' in the course of comparing steering a ship with steering (i.e., governing) a community.
  • Plato's student Aristotle also invokes the word kybernetike to describe governance in terms of steering the community.
  • First recorded writing on automation: "If every instrument could accomplish its own work, obeying or anticipating the will of others...if the shuttle could weave, and the pick touch the lyre, without a hand to guide them, chief workmen would not need servants,..." (Aristotle)
  • To judge from the records, it is Aristotle who originates the phrase 'The whole is more than the sum of its parts', which must survive more than two millennia to re-emerge as a 20th century cliche.
  • Aristotle outlines the specifications for the first formal deductive framework - syllogistic logic.

3rd Century BC
  • Earliest known manufactured feedback control mechanisms
  • A Greek named Ktesibios in Alexandria invents a float regulator for a water clock. (ca. 270 BC)
  • Philon of Byzantium uses a float regulator to keep a constant level of oil in a lamp (ca. 250 BC)
  • The Greek philosopher Chrysippus is credited with inventing propositional calculus.

1st Century AD
  • Self-closing cisterns in use
  • Self-regulation of water-powered systems by exploiting power in water flow
  • Float regulators and similar devices employed for a wide variety of applications, including automatic wine dispensing, syphons to maintain constant water level differences between two vessels, opening of temple doors, etc.

  • Adoption and elaboration of float regulators in the Arab Empire.

  • Chinese 'south-pointing chariot' linked compass mechanism via gears to keep chariot's wheels pointing south.

  • The 'on-off' control feature is implemented in Arab water regulator devices (by 1200's)
  • Spanish theologian and philosopher Ramon Llull devises machines configured to reflect logical structures and capable of combinatoric permutations of non-mathematical terms. (mid-1200's)

  • Invention of the mechanical clock (which is not a feedback control device) obsoletes the practical need for feedback regulation in clocks.
  • Elaborate clock-driven automatons begin to appear. On the Cathedral in Strasbourg an automated rooster would flap its wings and crow every day at noon. (1350)
  • Sacking of Baghdad by Mongols wipes out last center of innovation for float regulator devices (1358)

  • The mill-hopper (a device regulating the flow of grain in a based on a millstone's rotational speed) was fairly well refined and in widespread usage. (ca. 1588)

  • By burning Giordano Bruno at the stake and threatening Galileo Galilei, the Church intimidates the new field of 'science' into studiously avoiding attention to and mention of the world of human affairs. (1600 and onward)
  • Cornelis Drebbel (Holland) develops an automatic control system regulating a furnace's temperature. (ca. 1624)
  • Descartes postulates one's conscious mentation as the ground for philosophizing in Discourse on Method (1637)
  • Descartes argues for separation of body and soul in Passions of the Soul (1649)
  • Thomas Hobbes publishes Leviathan, popularizing the organismic metaphor for society (1651)
  • Papin invents a safety valve for a pressure cooker (1681)
  • John Locke publishes An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, establishing the modern notion of 'idea' as a discrete entity in the mind's mysteriously non-spatial 'space' (1690)
  • Johann Bernoulli first mentions a Principle of Optimality in regard to his observation that achieving optimality is a fundamental property of motion in natural systems (1696)
  • Leibniz concentrates his work on formal logics, logical models, and logic as a universal language (late 1600's into the early 1700's)

  • Papin adapts his pressure cooker valve to regulate pressure in a prototype steam engine (1707)
  • George Berkeley publishes An Essay Toward a New Theory of Vision, calling into question the 'objectivity' of perception (1709)
  • Giambattista Vico declares the only knowledge one can have is what one construes (often cited as the original declaration of a constructivist epistemology) (1710)
  • British blacksmith E. Lee invents the fantail - a small fan mounted at right angles to a windmill's main wheel - to keep the windmill pointed into the wind. (1745)
  • Julien Offray de La Mettrie explains mental activity as wholly explanable via physiology Histoire naturelle de l'âme (Natural History of the Soul) (1745), then proceeds to explain physiology in purely mechanistic terms in his L'homme machine (Man a Machine). (1747)
  • Various prototypes of temperature regulators built and used in incubators (early-to-mid 1700's)
  • Reductionism (presumption that analyzing constituent elements is sufficient for understanding) begins to dominate the sciences (mid-1700's onward)
  • James Watts introduces his regulated steam engine, and the Industrial Revolution begins in earnest. Although steam engines had been built earlier, it was the addition of automatic controls that made their widespread employment feasible. (1769)
  • Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations published, introducing the metaphor of the 'invisible hand' guiding affairs. (1776)
  • Float regulator devices once again become popular for employment during the Industrial Revolution.
  • First temperature regulator suitable for industrial use developed by Bonnemain (1777)
  • Immanuel Kant publishes The Critic of the Pure Reason, establishing the problematic of noumena versus phenomena (1782)
  • Luigi Galvani's experiments demonstrate electrical stimulation as an impetus for muscle reflex (1786)
  • Watt finalizes design of the centrifugal flyball governor for regulating the speed of his steam engine (1788)
  • In 1793 the Swiss watchmaker Breguet employed a closed-loop feedback system to synchronize pocket watches in his pendule sympathique. (1793)
  • Thomas Malthus, in writing on population, outlines a scenario of reciprocal effect between population size and food supply - i.e., an early discussion of what would later be termed 'feedback'. (1798)

  • Joseph Jacquard invents a loom controlled by reconfigurable cards - the first programmable production machine (1801)
  • Baron Cuvier introduces the use of the term l'intelligence , as opposed to reason, as a more general concept for addressing directed behavior in animals as well as humans (1822)
  • Charles Babbage conceives and describes his Analytical Engine (1833)
  • French scientist Andre-Marie Ampère invokes the term cybernétique (still the French form of the English 'cybernetics') to denote 'the art of governing' or 'politics'. (Essai sur la Philosophie des Sciences, publication dates variously given as 1834, 1838, and 1845)
  • George Boole presents his logical scheme. (1836)
  • German physiologist Johannes Müller formulates his Law of Specific Nerve Energies - associating perception with a variety of distinct neural mechanisms and pathways, and refuting the notion that external phenomena are 'received as a whole' by the perceptual system. (late 1830's)
  • British Astronomer Royal G.B. Airy, develops a feedback device for continuously manuevering a telescope to compensate for the earth's rotation. Problems with his mechanism led to Airy's becoming the first person to discuss instability in close-loop systems and the first to analyze them using differential equations. (1840)
  • Bronislaw Trentowski publishes Cybernetyka -- a vision of unified human activities guided by the transdisciplinary finesse of a manager who must be transdisciplinary owing to the inability of any single discipline to capture the range of knowledge requisite to such management. (1843)
    Sidenote: Bronislaw Trentowski, with Karol Libelt, is credited for introducing the term 'intelligentsia' (1844)
  • Ada Byron Lovelace hypothesizes Babbage engines could 'compute' any symbols, not just numbers, and she suggests possibilities for creating graphics and complex musical forms. (1843)
  • The French biologist Claude Bernard introduces the idea of homeostasis as well as attention to the maintenance of constant state(s) in the body. (1855)
  • Darwin publishes The Origin of Species, emphasizing reciprocal interaction between individual organisms and their environment as a determining factor in speciation and evolution. (1859)
  • Transcontinental and transoceanic telegraphy introduces the first global communications network, with subsequent applications presaging the 20th century's Internet (1860's onward)
  • J. C. Maxwell applies differential equations to explain instability problems in James Watt's flyball governor (1868)
  • American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce develops his 'pragmaticism', which makes knowledge contingent on experience and provides a formal basis for exploring epistemological constructivism (1860's and onward)
  • Peirce develops his 'phaneroscopy' (study of that which can be present to the mind) and an associated 'semiotic' (theory of signs) which reframes cognition in terms of abstract relations (1870's and onward)
  • Poincaré's mathematical work is sometimes considered the genesis of modern systems dynamics. (1880's)

  • By the beginning of the 20th century industrial management functions were already evolving away from 'ownership', and 'management' of large enterprises was becoming a profession in and of itself. (Turn of the century onward)
  • Pavlov publishes his results on conditioning behavior. (1906)
  • Jakob von Uexküll introduces the term Umwelt to denote the subjective world of an organism (1909)

  • Sperry introduces the gyroscope, which will be employed in controls for ships and eventually aircraft (1910)
  • Edward Thorndike formulates the Law of Effect - subsequent actions will be more / less likely depending on good / bad perceived outcomes of prior such actions (1911)
  • Alexander Bogdanov publishes Tektology: Universal Organization Science - one of the earliest treatises on the part / whole relationships in systems - in which he ambitiously proposed that all physical, biological, and human sciences could be unified by treating them as systems of relationships and by seeking the organizational principles that underlie all systems. (1912 or 1913)
  • Ferdinand de Saussure's Course in General Linguistics posthumously published by his former students. This work motivated the development of semiotics. (1916)
  • WWI generates a horrific number of injured soldiers, some of whose head and brain damage will be the object of scrutiny for psychologists and physiologists for decades thereafter. Some of these researchers (e.g., Kurt Goldstein) will begin to discern linkages between the nervous system and observable behaviors (1914 - 1918)

  • Köhler, Koffka and Wertheimer establish a journal Psychologische Forschung to provide a vehicle for their Gestalt viewpoints on psychology. (1920)
  • L. F. Richardson develops his 'politicometrics' and uses formal models to analyze government and international issues. (1920's)
  • The word 'robot' first appears in the Karl Capek play R.U.R.. The word is derived from the Czech 'robota', meaning 'serf' or 'subservient labor(-er)' (1921)
  • Minorsky introduces the three-term controller for steering ships, based on mathematical models accounting for nonlinear effects in a closed-loop system (1922)
  • Bell Laboratories undertakes application of mathematical models and techniques to analyze telephonic communications network behaviors (1920's onward)
  • Max Wertheimer publishes Gestalt Theory (1924)
  • Alfred James Lotka publishes Elements of Physical Biology (later cited as a precedent for some cybernetics principles). (1924)
  • Vannevar Bush and colleagues develop the first analogue computer, capable of solving differential equations. (1925)
  • Alfred North Whitehead's Science in the Modern World introduces his concept of 'organic mechanism' (1925)
  • Jan Smuts publishes Holism and Evolution, often cited as the genesis of 'holism' and 'whole systems' perspectives. (1926)
  • Vernadsky's book Biosphere interrelates human life with both biological and non-biological factors, as well as introducing the term 'noosphere'. (1926)
  • In the first technical analysis of a closed loop control system, H. S. Black demonstrates the utility of negative feedback in the design of telephone repeater amplifiers to reduce distortion (1927)
  • Jakob von Uexküll publishes his Theoretische Biologie, in which he emphasizes the role of the observer in biological analyses and the subject-dependency of perception. (1928)
  • Physiologist L. J. Henderson gives a lecture stating life consisted in complex physical and chemical systems in which all the variables were related mathematically and introducing the 'nomogram' as an analytical depiction of variables and their interrelationships. (1928)
  • Walter Cannon introduces the modern concept of homeostasis in his book Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear and Rage. (1929)

  • Kurt Gödel introduces Gödel's Theorem, which will become a canonical point of reference in debates over human cognition as symbolic processing and human versus machine intelligence. (1931)
  • Nyquist publishes his work on 'regeneration theory' in the design of stable amplifiers, relying on what would later be labeled 'feedback' (1932)
  • Philosopher F. S. C. Northrop publishes Science and First Principles - an essay on biological organization emphasizing (e.g.) elements of steady-state maintenance and feedback. (1931)
  • Alfred Korbzyski notes the essentially circular character of language - specifically the way in which meanings and utterances build on earlier ones. (1933)
  • Key Gestalt psychologists Max Wertheimer and Kurt Lewin come to the USA (1933)
  • H.L. Házen publishes his Theory of Servomechanisms, introducing mathematical control theory for system controller design. In this paper, Házen coined the word servomechanism, metaphorically connoting a master/slave relationship within systems. (1934)
  • Gestalt psychologist Wolfgang Köhler emigrates to the USA (1935)
  • Organismic psychologist Kurt Goldstein moves to the USA (1935)
  • British ecologist Alfred Tansley coins the term 'ecosystem'. (1935)
  • Alan Turing specifies the abstract Turing Machine. (1936)
  • While at the University of Chicago on a fellowship, Ludwig von Bertalanffy gave his first lecture describing General Systems Theory (GST) as an interdisciplinary methodology valid for all sciences (1937 or 1938)
  • Romanian scientist Stefan Odobleja publishes his two-volume Psychologie Consonantiste in which he emphasizes closed-loop feedback and the universality of laws based on this principle. (1938 - 1939)
  • Ludwig von Bertalanffy introduces his hierarchical principles of organization in his paper "A quantitative theory of organic growth" (1938)
  • H.W. Bode employs magnitude and phase frequency response plots of a complex function to analyze closed-loop stability in electronic systems (1938)
  • Philosophical debates on artificial intelligence begin...

HISTORICAL ERA for Cybernetics

  • MIT Radiation Laboratory established to research control and information processing problems associated with the newly-invented radar (1940)
  • Norbert Wiener begins working with engineer Julian Bigelow on the problems involved in effective automatic range finders for antiaircraft guns (1940)
  • Jakob von Uexküll publishes his book Bedeutungslehre, considered the point of origin for biosemiotics. (1940)
  • Benjamin Whorf publishes 3 papers in which he introduces his theses that language and culture are intimately interwoven and that language structures thought. (1940 - 1941)
  • The Norden bombsight employs synchronized repeaters to continuously 'update' the sight's display with respect to (e.g.) the aircraft's altitude and speed (WWII)
  • The application of mathematical modeling to problems of production and logistics yields the new field of operations research, primarily in the UK (WWII)
  • A. C. Hall applies earlier Bell Labs analyses to ameliorate noise effects and improve airborne radar control systems (1941 and onward)
  • Psychiatrist Andras Angyal publishes Foundations for a Science of Personality, introducing systemic concepts such as heteronomy versus homonomy, a 'biosphere' subsuming both individual and environment, and the triadic relationships inherent in systems. (1941)
  • The word 'robotics' first appears in the Isaac Asimov short story "Runaround". (1942)
  • Norbert Wiener analyzes information processing systems with models of stochastic processes, leading to a statistically optimal filter improving the signal-to-noise ratio in a communication system (1942)
  • The first Macy meeting is held on the subject of 'cerebral inhibition'. Attendees included Gregory Bateson, Warren McCulloch, Margaret Mead, Lawrence Frank, Lawrence Kubie, and Arturo Rosenblueth. Rosenbluth energizes the others with a presentation on 'teleological mechanisms', 'circular causality', and 'feedback'. (1942)
  • Warren McCulloch proposes to Macy Foundation executive Frank Fremont-Smith that a series of conferences be convened on the circular causality / teleological mechanism themes presented at the Cerebral Inhibition Meeting. Fremont-Smith, concurs, but says this would have to await the end of the war. (1942)
  • Carl Rogers establishes his patient-centered approach to therapy (circa 1942)
  • Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts conduct their pioneering work on neural networks (up through 1943)
  • Arturo Rosenblueth, Norbert Wiener, and Julian Bigelow publish their seminal article "Behavior, Purpose and Teleology" This was the published version of the topics Rosenblueth had presented in the 1942 Cerebral Inhibition meeting. It marked the first scientific publication addressing purposeful machines (1943)
  • Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts publish their seminal paper "A Logical Calculus of the Ideas Immanent in Nervous Activity" (1943)
  • Alan Turing pursues his 'child machine' concept - using knowledge of how humans acquire intelligence to design a trainable intelligent machine or computer. (ca. 1943)
  • Jakob von Uexküll dies (1944)
  • Publication of textbooks summarizing advances of the WWII era opens up a 'golden age' in engineering control theory (1945 and onward)
  • A diverse group including Wiener, Von Neumann, McCulloch, and Pitts meet to discuss the establishment of a new field of inquiry reflecting their common themes and interests (1945)
  • John von Neumann outlines the formal bases for cellular automata. (ca. 1945)
  • Eckert and Mauchly build the first large electronic computer (ENIAC) at the University of Pennsylvania. (1946)
  • John von Neumann formulates concept of a stored 'program', setting the stage for flexible programming of computers. (1946)
  • Kurt Goldstein publishes The Organism, correlating biology and psychology in behavior. (1946)
  • The first of ten Macy conferences is held under the initial title "Feedback Mechanisms and Circular Causal Systems in Biological and Social Systems". This series of conferences (actually motivated by excitement from the 1942 Cerebral Inhibition meeting) will become the birthplace of cybernetics as a field. (1946)
  • Norbert Wiener's first recorded public usage of the term 'cybernetics' at a Macy conference on the subject of "Feedback Mechanisms and Circular Causal Systems in Biological and Social Systems" (1946)
  • Ecologist G. E. Hutchinson presents a paper entitled "Circular causal systems in ecology" at the 1946 Macy Conference, linking ecology and the new constructs that were about to be labeled 'cybernetics'.
  • W. Ross Ashby's paper "Principles of the self-organizing dynamic system" introduces the term 'self-organizing' into cybernetics parlance. (1947)
  • In his paper "Science and complexity", Warren Weaver first outlines a taxonomy for system complexity. (1947)
  • Norbert Wiener publishes his seminal book Cybernetics (1948)
  • Claude Shannon´s "The Mathematical Theory of Communication" showed engineers how to code data so they could check for accuracy in transmission. (1948)
  • Shannon identified the bit as the fundamental unit of data. (1948)
  • von Neumann oversees construction of the first stored-program computer at Princeton. (1948)
  • Robert Merton describes feedback in the social dynamics of prejudice in his book The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, whose very title invokes the notions of circular causality and feedback. (1948)
  • Grey Walter creates autonomous machines called Elmer and Elsie that mimic lifelike behavior with very simple circuitry. (1948 - 1949)
  • Donald Hebb demonstrates how simple neural elements and operations could explain complex observed psychological phenomena such as learning. (1949)
  • Heinz von Foerster makes first appearance at the (sixth) Macy Conference, and is appointed editor for the conference proceedings. Citing his limited English skills, he suggests the group adopt Wiener's term 'cybernetics' to more concisely denote their new domain of interest. (1949)
  • Ludwig von Bertalanffy publishes his paper "The concepts of systems in physics and biology" (1949)
  • Jean Piaget begins his series of lectures entitled "Genetic Epistemology" at Columbia University (1949 - 1951)

  • French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan compares cybernetic patterns with Freudian metapsychology (1950)
  • von Bertalanffy publishes his paper "An outline of General Systems Theory" (1950)
  • Alan Turing proposes the Turing Test to decide if a computer is exhibiting intelligent behaviour. (1950)
  • Arthur Iberall founds the field of 'homeokinetics' (the study of complex physical systems). (early 1950's)
  • Sperry Rand builds the first commercially-available data processing machine, the UNIVAC I (1950)
  • Heinz von Foerster comes to the University of Illinois to begin teaching (1951)
  • Talcott Parsons' The Social System is published, initiating a systems-oriented trend in sociology. (1951)
  • H. Ross Ashby publishes Design for a Brain. (1952)
  • The last of the Macy Conferences is held (1953)
  • Gordon Pask's initial apparatus, named "Musicolour", provides an array of lights whose behavior adapted to a musician's performance (1953)
  • Eugene Odum publishes Fundamentals of Ecology - the first ecology textbook to focus on the ecosystem concept. (1953)
  • Popular characterization of mainframe computers as 'electronic brains' (1950's)
  • Gregory Bateson undertakes his study on communications and schizophrenia (1954)
  • Both Minsky and Farley & Clark describe analog machines designed to implement trial-and-error learning (1954)
  • Ludwig von Bertalanffy and Kenneth Boulding found the Society for the Advancement of General Systems (1954)
  • William T. (Bill) Powers begins his development of Perceptual Control Theory - PCT. (mid-1950's)
  • The Society for the Advancement of General Systems is renamed as the Society for General Systems Research. NOTE: This organization would later become the International Society for Systems Sciences (ISSS) (1955)
  • George Kelly publishes Psychology of Personal Constructs (1955)
  • Ilya Prigogine, based on work in physical chemistry, develops concept of 'dissipative structures' (ca. 1955 onward)
  • Norbert Wiener publishes The Human Use of Human Beings (1956)
  • Ross Ashby publishes Introduction to Cybernetics (1956)
  • George A. Miller publishes his famous article on the "magic number seven, plus or minus two" - positing a quantifiable constraint on human cognitive processing. (1956)
  • Gordon Pask produces SAKI ('self-adaptive keyboard instructor') - the world's first adaptive teaching system to go into commercial production (1956)
  • Dartmouth conference launches the field of artificial intelligence (AI) (1956)
  • Jay Forrester founds the field of systems dynamics. (ca. 1956)
  • Churchman, Ackoff, and Arnoff publish Introduction to Operations Research - the first comprehensive textbook in the field. (1957)
  • Macy Conference participant G. E. Hutchinson formally defines the niche concept as the activity range of each species along every dimension of the environment. (1957)
  • Biological Computer Laboratory established at the University of Illinois (1958)
  • Allen Newell, Marvin E. Shaw, and Herbert A. Simon publish an article outlining what will become the cognitivist or information-processing approach in psychology (1958)
  • Stafford Beer publishes Cybernetics and Management, considered the seminal work in management cybernetics. (1959)
  • Bernard Patten embarks on an exploratory attempt to extend information theory to ecology and study the ecosystem from a cybernetic point of view. (1959)

  • Ross Ashby comes to Illinois to work at the BCL (ca 1960 or 1961)
  • Heinz von Foerster and the University of Illinois host a conference entitled 'Principles of Self-organization' - drawing McCulloch, von Bertalanffy, Pask, Beer, Ashby, and many others. (1960)
  • Heinz von Foerster publishes his paper "On self-organizing systems and their environments" (1960)
  • Artist and educator Roy Ascott began exploring cybernetics in the context of interactive art and art education (ca. 1960)
  • Dr. Maxwell Maltz publishes his self-help book Psycho-Cybernetics - perhaps the most widely known popular 'theory' claiming to be based on cybernetics principles. (1960)
  • Gordon Pask publishes An Approach to Cybernetics (1961)
  • Social scientist K. W. Deutsch publishes The Nerves of Government: Models of Political Communication and Control - the first book-length analysis of cybernetics' value from the viewpoint of a social scientist outside the cybernetics / GST movement. (1963)
  • The American Society for Cybernetics (ASC) is founded. (1964)
  • Norbert Wiener dies. (1964)
  • Marshall McLuhan publishes Understanding Media, igniting a wave of critical analyses of the role of mass media in society and culture. (1964)
  • First major artificial intelligence laboratories established at MIT, Stanford, SRI, and University of Edinburgh. (ca. 1964)
  • Ascott publishes The Construction of Change, a text on the relationship between art, systems theory, cybernetics, and behavior (1964)
  • Warren McCulloch's magnum opus Embodiments of Mind is published (1965)
  • Artist Frank Gillette employs feedback processes in his interactive work "Wipe Cycle" (1965)
  • Systems-theoretical and cybernetics concepts are adopted wholesale by the counterculture (late 1960's)
  • Jay Forrester and others develop mathematical models and computable applications in systems dynamics (throughout 1960's)
  • Berger and Luckmann publish Social Construction of Reality (1966)
  • The International Union of Biological Societies (IUBS) asks C.H. Waddington to organize a series of conferences on the subject of theoretical biology. Four consecutive summer conferences take place at Serbelloni. (1966 - 1969)
  • Developmental biologist Michael Apter employs models derived from cybernetics to describe developmental phenomena in his book Cybernetics and Development (1966)
  • Paul Watzlawick (with co-authors Beavin and Jackson) publish Pragmatics of Human Communication, which both invokes systemic principles in its analysis of everyday speech and lays the groundwork for a constructivist orientation. (1967)
  • Ludwig von Bertalanffy publishes Robots, Men and Minds: Psychology in the Modern World, arguing against a behaviorist view of human behavior on the basis of humans' innate capacity to process symbols. What is interesting is his reliance upon the same themes of information and communication he eschewed when vociferously differentiating his GST from cybernetics two decades earlier. (1967)
  • Sociologist Walter Buckley publishes the book Sociology and Modern Systems Theory, the first substantial exploration of GST's application to social systems by a scholar not aligned with the cybernetics or general systems movements. (1967)
  • Zenith of the paradigm of ecosystem ecology, sometimes called cybernetic ecology. (late 1960's - early 1970's)
  • Cyberenetics turns its attention onto itself (via attention to 'the cybernetics of cybernetics'), and second-order cybernetics is born (1968)
  • Ludwig von Bertalanffy publishes General System Theory (1968)
  • The Whole Earth Catalog and its successive editions popularize the concepts of 'whole systems' and 'cybernetics' (which editor Stewart Brand treats as one and the same) (1968 and onward)
  • Rene Thom creates catastrophe theory (1968)
  • Heinz von Foerster publishes Analysis and Synthesis of Cognitive Processes and Systems (1969)
  • G. Spencer Brown publishes first edition of his Laws of Form (1969)
  • Humberto Maturana at the University of Illinois' Biological Computer Laboratory (1969 - 1970)
  • Theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman publishes a series of papers in which he describes genetic regulatory networks using ideas derived from cybernetics and general systems theory (1969 - 1973)

  • Publication of Humberto Maturana's seminal paper 'Neurophysiology of Cognition' (1970)
  • Ashby leaves BCL and returns to England (ca 1970 or 1971)
  • Stafford Beer is commissioned by the Allende government in Chile to integrate a management structure for the national economy, and the CyberSyn project is born. (circa 1971)
  • C. West Churchman publishes The Design of Inquiring Systems, which examines knowledge and knowledge-generating 'systems' in light of selected philosophical models. (1971)
  • Gregory Bateson publishes Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972)
  • Gordon Pask reports on his work with the "course assembly system and tutorial environment" labeled CASTE (1972)
  • Maturana and his student / colleague Francisco Varela publish De Maquinas y Seres Vivos. Una caracterizacion de la organizacion biologica (1972)
  • Stafford Beer publishes Brain of the Firm: The Managerial Cybernetics of Organization (1972)
  • A systems-simulation-based analysis of humanity's future is published as Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome. Its dire predictions call public attention to ecology and to the utility of large scale systems analysis. (1972)
  • Though only partially implemented, the CyberSyn network is employed to aid the Allende government in maintaining national economic functions and surviving a widespread strike / blockade initiated by enemies of the regime. (1972)
  • Artist Dan Graham applies feedback principles in his interactive work "Two Consciousness Projections" (1972)
  • Warren McCulloch dies (1972)
  • Ludwig von Bertalanffy dies (1972)
  • William Powers publishes his book on perceptual control theory Behavior: the Control of Perception. (1973)
  • Maturana and Varela introduce the term 'autopoiesis' (1973)
  • The Allende government is overthrown in a bloody coup, terminating the CyberSyn project in midstream with only 2/3 of the national economy's subsystems integrated into the cybernetic network. (1973)
  • Heinz von Foerster oversees a year-long class project at BCL on the subject of 'cybernetics of cybernetics', generating a mass of material eventually published under that title. (1973 - 1974)
  • Gordon Pask produces Thoughtsticker - an environment for mapping representations of ideas and reconfiguring these to address novel combinations and perspectives (1974)
  • Science fiction author John Brunner introduces the notion of an individual or small group affecting an entire society by exploiting networked computer systems in his novel Shockwave Rider (1974)
  • Maturana and Varela publish their Autopoietic Systems: A Characterization of the Living Organization as a BCL Research Report (1975)
  • Li and Yorke create the label 'chaos theory' for the area of their research interests. (1975)
  • Gordon Pask publishes his massive two-volume work on conversation theory (1975 / 1976)
  • Heinz von Foerster, having reached the University of Illinois' mandatory retirement age, retires (1975)
  • The Biological Computer Laboratory ceases operations (1975)
  • Paul Watzlawick publishes his popular book on constructivist epistemology How Real is Real? (1976)
  • Ernst von Glasersfeld publishes a series of articles relating his radical constructivism, Piaget, and cybernetics (1976 onward into the early 1980's)
  • Maturana publishes the paper "Biology of language: The epistemology of reality" (1978)
  • Margaret Mead dies (1978)
  • Varela publishes Principles of Biological Autonomy (1979)
  • Stafford Beer's The Heart of the Enterprise, outlining his Viable System Model (VSM), is published. (1979)
  • Gregory Bateson's Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity is published (1979)

  • Maturana and Varela's book Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living is published (1980)
  • Erich Jantsch publishes his book The Self-Organizing Universe, which introduces a wide audience to the concepts of autopoiesis, dissipative structures, and self-organization. (1980)
  • Gregory Bateson dies (1980)
  • The Österreichische Studiengesellschaft für Kybernetik, the Society for General Systems Researchand the Systeemgroep Nederland establish the International Federation for Systems Research (IFSR) (1980)
  • Francisco Parra-Luna establishes an International Sociological Association (ISA) Ad Hoc Group on 'sociocybernetics' (1980)
  • Heinz von Foerster publishes Observing Systems - a compendium of his papers on constructivism and second-order cybernetics (1982)
  • Niklas Luhmann publishes his paper "The world society as a social system", in which he introduces his analysis of social systems as an autopoietic network comprised of communications (1982)
  • The Santa Fe Institute is founded for research into the subject of complexity and complex systems. (1984)
  • Author William Gibson coins the term 'cyberspace' in his science fiction novel Neuromancer (1984)
  • Paul Watzlawick publishes his edited collection of papers (some from people active in second-order cybernetics) which documents and popularizes constructivist epistemology (Die erfundene Wirklichkeit, 1981; The Invented Reality, 1984).
  • Niklas Luhmann publishes his Soziale Systeme in German (1984)
  • Proliferation of systems and cybernetics concepts in individual, group, and family psychotherapy under labels such as 'systems therapy' and 'systemic therapy'. Prominent among these is the 'Milan School' of family therapy, which explicitly draws on second-order cybernetics work, particularly Maturana's (1980's and continuing)
  • Practitioners of certain advanced systems simulation studies, particularly those involving cellular automata and other data outputs connotative of perceived self-organization, coalesce under the label 'artificial life'. (mid-1980's)
  • Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores invoke Maturana and other cybernetics thinkers in their critique of symbolic AI entitled Understanding Computers and Cognition (1986)
  • McClelland and Rumelhart's books Parallel Distributed Processing set off a renaissance of interest in neural and neural-like networks. (1986)
  • Maturana and Varela publish their popularized account of their theories, The Tree of Knowledge. This book will provide an entry point into their work for a wide audience (1987)
  • James Gleick's book Chaos ignites the coalescence of diverse streams of work into a popularized 'chaos theory'. (1987)
  • Maturana publishes what will become perhaps his most widely-read paper - "Reality: The search for objectivity or the quest for a compelling argument" (1988)

  • Steven Heims publishes his history of the cybernetics' movement origin - The Cybernetics Group (1991)
  • Francisco Varela (with Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch) publish Embodied Mind, launching the field of enactive cognitive science. (1992)
  • The field of 'sociocybernetics' coalesces (early 1990's onward)
  • Stafford Beer introduces 'team syntegration' in his book Beyond Dispute: The Invention of Team Syntegrity (1994)
  • Heinz von Foerster and Steven Carlton re-publish the compendium Cybernetics of Cybernetics (1995)
  • Niklas Luhmann's primary work Soziale Systeme is published in English as Social Systems (1995)
  • von Glasersfeld publishes his book Radical Constructivism (1995)
  • ISA group on sociocybernetics is re-activated (1995)
  • Gordon Pask dies (1996)
  • Niklas Luhmann dies (1998)
  • Sociocybernetics group formally recognized as ISA Research Committee RC51 (1998)

THE FUTURE for Cybernetics

As we enter the 21st century, the many facets of cybernetics continue to thrive and evolve   The control aspects of first-order cybernetics continue their relevance in engineering and technology. The communications aspects of first-order cybernetics remain subjects of active theorization and analysis. The second-order cybernetics born in the late 1960's continues to motivate innovations in theory and practice. Applications of both first- and second-order cybernetics are proliferating in a variety of fields. Whether or not cybernetics is explicitly cited as the basis or the aegis for these developments, it should be clear that cybernetics is alive and well.
Your Participation is Invited!

For information on joining ASC, consult our Membership Page.

For introductions to American Society for Cybernetics members contributing to cybernetics' future development, our website's Links section provides an ASC Cyberneticians page.
To illustrate how the American Society for Cybernetics is contributing to cybernetics' future development, our website's Wavefront section provides information on things such as:

Other Timelines for Cybernetics and Related Fields

    This subsection offers a set of links to other historical timelines accessible online. Some of these address cybernetics itself, but most address other fields in which cybernetics is cited as a significant milestone.

Summary Timeline of Cybernetics History


  This website dedicated to chaos and complexity theory offers a condensed timeline of the significant milestones of cybernetics' history at:

Map and Timeline:
The 1900s

  This website provides a composite timeline for the 20th century which correlates the appearance of cybernetics within a context of 5 fields:

  • Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis
  • Behaviorism
  • Phenomenological, Gestalt, Humanistic, and Existential Psychology
  • Cognitive Psychology/ Artificial Intelligence
  • Modern Medicine and Physiology

'Ecosystem' and Ecology, 1935-1990's

  This is a timeline developed by David L. Cox, Ph.D. It traces the use of the term "ecosystem" from its introduction in 1935 through the 1990s. Associated commentary sections highlight similarities and shifts of meaning, with respect to theoretical debates in ecology, during that same period. This webpage also provides links to other similar resources on the history of 'ecosystem' and 'cybernetics' as constructs in ecology.

Learning Organization Concepts

  This timeline at the Dance of Change website cites the Macy Conferences and their participants in the context of learning organization history.

Multimedia Art

  This site offers a timeline for the evolution of media- and multimedia-based art. Norbert Wiener's formulation of cybernetics is treated as one of the significant milestones.

Information Sharing

  This timeline outlines the important events in the history of conceptualizing and sharing information.

Timeline of Computer History
(Computer History Museum)

  This timeline of computing notes the significance of Wiener's formulation of cybernetics (1948).

The Age of Spiritual Machines: Timeline
(Raymond Kurzweil)

  Cybernetics is cited as a milestone in this timeline of artificial intelligence.

  For feedback, suggestions or contributions, please email the ASC Webmaster.
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The Subject of Cybernetics

on the shoulders of giants