The original introduction to Norbert Wiener's Cybernetics -- written in 1947, published in 1948 -- is fascinating for what it tells us about its time and its author. It begins with a long discussion of the importance of interdisciplinary work that reads just like a tract from the late 1970s talking about cognitive science. Wiener says,

Since Leibniz there has perhaps been no man who has had a full command of all the intellectual activity of his day. [Perhaps we should say, since Hegel. JG] Since that time, science has been increasingly the task of specialists, in fields which show a tendency to grow progressively narrower. A century ago, there may have been no Leibniz, but there was a Gauss, a Faraday, and a Darwin. Today there are few scholars who can call themselves mathematicians or physicists or biologists without restriction. A man may be a topologist or a coleopterist. He will be filled with the jargon of his field, and will know all its literature and al its ramifications, but, more frequently than not, he will regard the next subject as something belonging to his colleague three doors down the corridor, and will consider any interest in it on his own part as an unwarrantable breach of privacy….(p 2)

…There are fields of scientific work, as we shall see in the body of this book, which have been explored from the different sides of pure mathematics, statistics, electrical engineering, and neurophysiology; in which every single notion receives a separate name from each group, and in which important work has been triplicated or quadruplicated, while still other important work is delayed by the unavailability in one field of results that may have already become classical in the next field.

It is these boundary regions which offer the richest opportunities to the qualified investigator. They are at the same time the most refractory to the accepted techniques of mass attack and the division of labor. If the difficulty of a physiological problem is mathematical in essence, then physiologists ignorant of mathematics will get precisely as far as one physiologists ignorant of mathematics, and no further. If a physiologist who knows no mathematics works together with a mathematician who knows no physiology, the one will be unable to state his problem in terms that the other can manipulate, and the second will be unable to put the answers in any form that the first can understand. Dr. Rosenblueth has always insisted that a proper exploration of these blank spaces on the map of science could only be made by a team of scientists, each a specialist in his own field but each possessing a thoroughly sound and trained acquaintance with the fields of his neighbors; all in the habit of working together, of knowing one another's intellectual customs, and of recognizing the significance e of a colleague's new suggestion before it has taken on a full formal expression. The mathematician need not have the skill to conduct a physiological experiment, but he must have the skill to understand one, to criticize one, and to suggest one. The physiologist need not be able to prove a certain mathematical theorem, but he mus5t be able to grasp its physiological significance and to tell the mathematician for what he should look. ….


Wiener brings in to sharp focus the defining character of World War II on the development of theories of mind, cognition, and the nervous system. He writes,

I had known for a considerable time that if a national emergency should come, my function in it would be determined largely by two things: my close contact with the program of computing machines developed by Dr. Vannevar Bush, and my own joint work with Dr. Yuk Wing Lee on the design of electric networks. In fact, both proved important. IN the summer of 1940, I turned a large part of my attention to the development of computing machines for the solution of partial differential equations. I had long been interested in these and had convinced myself that their chief problem, as contrasted with the ordinary differential equations so well treated by Dr. Bush ion his differential analyzer, was that of the representation of functions of more than one variable….[p. 3]

It was also clear that any scanning process [as in the new television JG] must vastly increase the number of data dealt with as compared with the number of data in a problem of ordinary differential equations. To accomplish reasonable results in a reasonable time, it thus became necessary to push the speed of the elementary processes to the maximum, and to avoid interrupting the stream of these processes by steps of an essentially slower nature. It also became necessary to perform the individual processes with so high a degree of accuracy that the enormous repetition of the elementary processes should not bring about a cumulative error so great as to swamp all accuracy. Thus the following requirements were suggested:

1. That the central adding and multiplying apparatus of the computing machine should be numerical, as in an ordinary adding machine, rather than on a basis of measurement, as in the Bush differential analyzer.

2. That these mechanisms, which are essentially switching devices, should depend on electronic tubes rather than on gears or mechanical relays, in order to secure quicker action.

3. That, in accordance with the policy adopted in some existing apparatus of the Bell

Telephone Laboratories, it would probably be more economical in apparatus to adopt the scale of two for addition and multiplication, rather than the scale of 10.

4. That the entire sequence of operations be laid out on the machine itself so that there should be no human intervention from the time the data were entered until the final results should be taken off, and that all logical decisions necessary for this should be built into the machine itself.

5. That the machine contain an apparatus for the storage of data which should record them quickly, hold them firmly until erasure, read them quickly, erase them quickly, and then be immediately available for the storage of new material.

These recommendations, together with tentative suggestions for the means of realizing them, were sent in to Dr. Vannevar Bush for their possible use in a war. AT that stage of the preparations for war, they did not seem to have sufficiently high priority to make immediate work on them worth while. Nevertheless, they all represent ideas which have been incorporated into the modern ultra-rapid computing machine. These notions were all very much in the spirit of the thought of the time, and I do not for a moment wish to claim anything like the sole responsibility for their introduction. Nevertheless, they have proved useful, and its is my hope that my memorandum had some effect in popularizing them among engineers…(3-4).

p6: …It will be seen that for the second time I had become engaged in the study of a mechanico-electrical system which was designed to usurp a specifically human function -- in the first case, the execution of a complicated pattern of computation, and in the second, the forecasting of the future [trying to design anti-aircraft artillery operators]….

And the subject of information:

[p. 10] To cover this aspect of communication engineering , we had to develop a statistical theory of the amount of information in which the unit amount of information was that transmitted as a single decisions between equally probable alternatives. This idea occurred at about the same time to several writers, among them the statistician R.A. Fisher, Dr. Shannon of the Bell Telephone Laboratories, and this author. Fisher's motive in studying this subject is to be found in classical statistical theory; that of Shannon in the problem of coding information; and that of the author in the problem of noise and message in electrical filters. Let it be remarked parenthetically that some of my speculations in this direction attach themselves to the earlier work of Kolmogoroff in Russian, although a considerable part of my work was done before my attention was called to the work of the Russian school. [10-11]


p. 12: AT this point there enters an element which occurs repeatedly in the history of cybernetics -- the influence of mathematical logic. If I were to choose a patron saint for cybernetics out of the history of science, I should have to choose Leibniz. The philosophy of Liebniz centers around two closely related concepts -- that of a universal symbolism and that of a calculus of reasoning. From these are descended the mathematical notation and the symbolic logic of the present day. Now, just as the calculus of arithmetic lends itself to a mechanization progressing through the abacus and the desk computing machine to the ultra-rapid computing machines of the present day, so the calculus rationcinator of Leibniz contains the germs of the machinea rationcinatrix, the reasoning machine. Indeed, Leibniz himself, like his predecessor Pascal, was interested in the construction of computing machines in the metal. It is therefore not in the least surprising that the same intellectual impulse which has led to the development of mathematical logic has at the same time led to the ideal or actual mechanization of processes of thought. [12]


Wiener writes about himself (p. 13)

I am myself a former student of Russell and owe much to his influence.