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

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JHU Press, Oct 11, 2002 - Computers - 439 pages
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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 and Machine: Feedback, Control, and Computing before Cybernetics


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I've read a great deal about people who have used the fire control systems during the second world war, and how amazingly accurate these systems were. But i could never find much on how the systems worked and where they came from. David's book fills in the gaps and documents this key contribution to history. This is a must-read for those who are interested in the technology behind Naval warfare or who are interested in how the anti-aircraft automatic fire control worked that shot down the German buzz bombs over the UK. 


Introduction A History of Control Systems
Naval Control Systems The Bureau of Ordnance and the Ford Instrument Company
Taming the Beasts of the Machine Age The Sperry Company
Opening Blacks Box Bell Labs and the Transmission of Signals
Artificial Representation of Power Systems Analog Computing at MIT
Dress Rehearsal for War The Four Horsemen and Palomar
Organizing for War The Fire Control Divisions of the NDRC
The Servomechanisms Laboratory and Fire Control for the Masses
Analogs Finest Hour
Radar and System Integration at the Radiation Laboratory
Cybernetics and Ideas of the Digital
Conclusion Feedback and Information in 1945

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Page vii - All talk of cause and effect is secular history, and secular history is a diversionary tactic. Useful to you, gentlemen, but no longer so to us here. If you want the truth — I know I presume — you must look into the technology of these matters.

About the author (2002)

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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