Between Human and Machine: Feedback, Control, and Computing Before Cybernetics by David A. Mindell

Between Human and Machine: Feedback, Control, and Computing Before Cybernetics

David A. Mindell
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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 andMachine: Feedback, Control, and Computing before Cybernetics

Publisher Description

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. In this magisterial study, David 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 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.

Review
[Mindell's] account of this complex story of engineering, people, and organizations-academic, industrial and govenment-is well researched and well told. — Stuart Bennett International Journal of Adaptive Control and Signal Processing While one might think a history of servomechanisms, feedback loops, and fire control systems would be of interest only to a narrow audience, one of David A. Mindell's great achievements in this rich and multilayered book is to show the centrality of control systems-the machines (and humans) that control machines-to the history of computing, the history of technology, and indeed to American history in the twentieth century. — Ross Bassett American Historical Review In contextualizing the theory of cybernetics, Mindell gives engineering back forgotten parts of its history, and shows how important historical circumstances are to technological change... Mindell is scrupulous about providing this historical context; providing biographical insight into the major players in the history; and giving the reader a good sense of what it was like to be a Bell Labs scientist, or an engineer for Sperry. — Michele Tepper Networker The book is an eye-opener in understanding who our engineering ancestors were and what they did. — David L. Elliott IEEE Control Systems Magazine In an exceptionally insightful and lucid account, Mindell shows how engineering cultures emerging in specific institutional contexts profoundly shaped the design of human-machine systems and defined the human operator as part of a larger technological system. — Slava Gerovitch IEEE Annals of the History of Computing This is a good and surprising book. It is good in its articulate survey of dynamic man-machine systems in the period from 1916 to 1948; it is surprising in its convincing revision of our picture of the origins of the computer and cybernetics. — Larry Owens Technology and Culture The reader who makes the effort to follow Mindell's argument will be rewarded with a fresh insight into the emergence of the digital computer and all that its invention implies. — Paul E. Ceruzzi Journal of American History This book is the first major study by a professional historian and as such should help to draw the attention of historians to the embeddedness of feedback control in 20th century technological systems. — Stuart Bennett International Journal of Adaptive Control and Signal Processing A joy for both engineers and historians... Mindell's major contribution is to explore in abundant and fascinating detail the intellectual and physical roots of cybernetics in fields as distinct as communications engineering, military fire control, and analog computing. — Karl D. Stephan IEEE Technology and Society Magazine

Author Biography

David A. Mindell is the Frances and David Dibner Associate Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of War, Technology, and Experience aboard the USS Monitor, which was awarded the Society for the History of Technology's Sally Hacker Prize and is also available from Johns Hopkins.

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Between Human and Machine: Feedback, Control, and Computing Before Cybernetics

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