History of Cybernetics

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The word "cybernetics" comes from the Greek word "kybernetes" which means steersman, governor, or pilot.

This etymology stems from an influential book titled "Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine" written by mathematician Norbert Wiener in 1948.

In coining the term "cybernetics", Wiener drew inspiration from the ancient Greek idea of the "kybernetes" - the pilot or steersman who navigated and controlled the course of a ship.

Wiener saw parallels between how an expert pilot guides a ship by manipulating complex mechanisms to stay on course, and how living organisms and machines use communication, feedback, and control to regulate their behavior and output.

The steersman metaphor emphasizes cybernetics' focus on how systems use feedback, self-regulation, and goals/targets to maintain stability and direction. Just as a steersman monitors current conditions and makes adjustments to stay on track, biological and mechanical systems employ circular causal processes to achieve self-governance and homeostasis.

This Greek nautical roots of "cybernetics" highlights the field's fundamental concern with notions of communication, control, stability, and feedback - core concepts that remain relevant in today's complex networks, algorithms, and interconnected systems. The ancient steersman thus provided an apt metaphorical origin for a far-reaching modern scientific field.

Today, Cybernetics refers to the scientific study of control and communication in both living organisms and machines. It is an interdisciplinary field bridging engineering, mathematics, biology, neuroscience, psychology, and more. The origins of cybernetic theory date back to the early 20th century.


Some key figures in the history of cybernetics include: Norbert Wiener, W. Ross Ashby, Stafford Beer, Gordon Pask, Humberto Maturana, Francisco Varela, Heinz von Foerster, Gregory Bateson, Margaret Mead, Warren McCulloch and John von Neumann.

Other notable people include Avery Johnson and Warren Mortimer Brodey.


  • Indigenous Cybernetics
  • Early 1900s - Theoretical foundations established in fields like mathematics and engineering. Pioneers include James Clerk Maxwell, Vladimir Bekhterev, Andrey Kolmogorov.
  • 1940s - Norbert Wiener coins the term "cybernetics" and publishes foundational texts. Conferences held at the Macy Foundation in New York bring together interdisciplinary thinkers.
  • 1950s - W. Ross Ashby, W. Grey Walter and others make important contributions. Practical applications explored in robotics, neuroscience, early computing, etc.
  • 1960s-70s - Second wave cybernetics emerges, distinguishing hard/first wave and soft/second wave approaches. Focus on biological systems and constructivist theory.
  • 1980s-Present - Cybernetic perspectives integrate with complex systems theory, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, biological computing and more.

Technical Definition

Cybernetics involves the study of feedback loops and circular causal networks that are applied across machines and living things. Some core concepts include:

  • Feedback - Self-regulating systems that correct errors through circular causal loops.
  • Black Box - Focusing on inputs/outputs without needing to understand internal workings.
  • Variety - The complexity of possible system states.
  • Information Theory - Quantifying information to understand entropy and signal transmission.
  • Self-Organization - How order emerges from component interactions.
  • Second-Order Cybernetics - Observing cybernetic systems from within, reflexivity.

Further Reading

  • Wiener, N. (1948). Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. MIT Press.
  • Ashby, W.R. (1956). An Introduction to Cybernetics. Chapman & Hall.

von Foerster, H. (2003). Understanding Understanding: Essays on Cybernetics and Cognition. Springer.

  • Pickering, A. (2010). The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future. Chicago University Press.