Late Great Engineers: Norbert Wiener - father of cybernetics

5 min read

Archetype of the absent-minded professor, Norbert Wiener was a gifted mathematician and engineer, instrumental in making cybernetics a scientific discipline in its own right. Written by Nick Smith

In 1950, writing in The Human Use of Human Beings, Norbert Wiener states: “The nervous system and the automatic machine are fundamentally alike in that they are devices which make decisions on the basis of decisions they made in the past.” The most pertinent fact to differentiate this statement from the musings of Robert A Heinlein in his novel Citizen of the Galaxy, published in the same decade, in which a spaceship is named after Wiener, is that while Heinlein was scribbling science fiction for entertainment, MIT professor Wiener was postulating the most important early observations on cybernetic theory and automation.

US scientist Norbert Wiener. Image: SPUTNIK / Alamy Stock Photo

Today, Wiener is thought of as the father of cybernetics – a term he defined as “the science of control and communications in the animal and machine” – and is credited as one of the first to theorise that intelligent behaviour is the result of feedback mechanisms: a significant early step towards the development of artificial intelligence. The publication of Weiner’s book Cybernetics in 1948 is now accepted as the pivotal moment the topic became an independent science. In Cybernetics, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology publication MIT News, he “attempted to unify the study of biological and electromechanical systems through common principles of feedback, communication and control.” The article goes on to say that the book’s title, a neologism coined by Wiener and derived from the ancient Greek word kybernetikos (that translates literally as ‘good at steering’), lives on in terms such as ‘cyborg’ and ‘cyberspace’. It also affectionately describes Wiener’s career as, “40 years rambling the Institute’s halls, depositing the ashes of his signature cigar in the chalk trays of his colleagues’ blackboards, volubly holding forth on a bewildering range of topics, and, along the way, helping create the pop-culture archetype of the absent-minded professor.”

Information is information, not matter or energy

Norbert Wiener (1894-1964)

Norbert Wiener was born in the last decade of the 19th century in the American midwestern college town of Columbia, Missouri. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland and Germany. A child prodigy, young Norbert’s abilities in zoology and philosophy, engineering and mathematics, seem to have materialised via his paternal ancestry. Descended from the mediaeval Jewish philosopher Maimonides (who was also a pre-eminent astronomer and physician), his father Leo home-schooled Norbert, using educational techniques of his own invention. Wiener senior was something of a genius in his own right, having translated the 24 volumes of Tolstoy’s works into English in as many months, and was a patient teacher, although his pupil was to recall in his two-volume autobiography A Life in Cybernetics that his father was inclined to lose his temper when confronted with a wrong answer.

With such an intense start to his academic career, it seems hardly surprising that the young Wiener was to graduate from Ayers High School in 1906 at the age of 11 (the usual age is 18), was to attain a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the prestigious Tufts College (now Tufts University) in Massachusetts while still only 14, and was to go on to Harvard to study zoology. At his father’s suggestion he switched to philosophy, completing his doctorate at Harvard in 1913 with a dissertation on mathematical logic. In the same year he published his first paper in the journal Messenger of Mathematics. In 1914, he crossed the Atlantic to study at the University of Cambridge under one of the greatest polymaths of the 20th century, Bertrand Russell, and then to the University of Göttingen in Germany where he was taught by the most influential mathematician of the day, David Hilbert. On his return to the United States, Wiener taught philosophy at Harvard, became an engineer at General Electric and was briefly a reporter on the Boston Herald, a post from which he was apparently removed by the publisher in response to Wiener’s refusal to pander to the newspaper’s political slant.

By 1916 it had become inevitable that the US would enter the Great War and, while Wiener made several attempts to earn a commission as an officer, he was repeatedly rejected by the military on account of his poor eyesight. Determined to serve the war effort, he went to work in ballistics at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, before making further attempts to enlist, this time as a common soldier, writing to his parents that “I should consider myself a pretty cheap kind of a swine if I were willing to be an officer but unwilling to be a soldier.” In a turn of events bordering on farce, he was accepted into the ranks and posted to Aberdeen, Maryland merely days before the Armistice, and was discharged in February 1919. Following the war, after having his applications for permanent teaching positions rejected by both the University of Melbourne and Harvard (where he suspected institutional anti-Semitism played a part in his not being offered the post), Wiener was hired as an instructor of mathematics by MIT where, having been promoted to professor, he remained for the rest of his career.

Wiener's worked paved the way for modern breakthroughs in cybernetics. Image: metamorworks via stock.adobe.come

Between the wars Wiener carried out highly innovative and fundamental work on what are now called stochastic processes, developing a simple mathematical representation of Brownian motion, the tendency of a small particle suspended on the surface of a fluid to meander about, buffeted by the vibration of surrounding molecules. Brownian motion is the paradigm of a stochastic process, whose outcome was universally viewed as random. Wiener devised the first mathematical description of the phenomenon that allowed it to be quantified probabilistically, which was to find applications in characterising the random electromagnetic noise that corrupts radio signals, the quantum behaviour of particles and even stock market fluctuations. It was also relevant to quantum theory, providing a possible solution to a question that had been the subject of debate between physicists Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein. Applying his theoretical description of Brownian motion to quantum phenomena, Wiener demonstrated how quantum theory, to the extent that it is based on probability, is consistent with other branches of science.

In 1933 he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences but, according to his entry in Britannica, “soon resigned, repelled by some of the aspects of institutionalised science that he encountered there.” During World War II, his work on the automatic aiming and firing of anti-aircraft guns led Wiener to investigate information theory and to devise the Wiener filter for noise reduction in signal processing. According to MIT News: “Wiener envisioned a target’s flight path as a series of discrete measurements. Since airplanes don’t leap about the sky randomly, each new measurement is in some way correlated with the one that immediately preceded it, and, to a somewhat lesser degree, with the one preceding that, and so on, until you reach so far back in time that you come to measurements that have nothing to do with the target’s current position. Previous measurements thus offer some clues to future measurements; the trick is determining how much.” These ideas led to Extrapolation, Interpolation, and Smoothing of Stationary Time Series (1949), which first appeared as a classified report and established Wiener as a co-discoverer, with the Russian mathematician Andrey Kolmogorov, of the theory on the prediction of stationary time series. It introduced certain statistical methods into control and communications engineering and exerted great influence in these areas. This work also led him to formulate the concept of cybernetics.

After the war, Wiener helped MIT to recruit a research team in cognitive science, including Warren Sturgis McCulloch and Walter Pitts, who were to later make pioneering contributions to computer science and artificial intelligence. Soon after the group was formed, Wiener abruptly and mysteriously ended all contact with its members. In their biography of Wiener Dark Hero of the Information Age, Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman suggest that his wife Margaret, who ‘detested’ McCulloch’s bohemian lifestyle, caused the estrangement. It wasn’t to be Wiener’s only brush with controversy: his characteristically open-minded attitude to working with Soviet scientists raised a few official eyebrows during the Cold War.

Wiener died in Stockholm in 1964 of a heart attack a few weeks after being awarded the National Medal of Science, an honour bestowed by the President of the United States to individuals in science and engineering who have made important contributions to the advancement of knowledge. While to many, Wiener may have embodied the stereotype of the oblivious and eccentric academic, his work had real practical relevance. As MIT Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing David Mindell, whose book Between Human and Machine traces the story of cybernetics, points out: “for a mathematician he had an unusual interest in engineering and the engineering applications of what he was doing.”