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Between Human and Machine

, 456 pages

46 halftones, 36 line drawings

September 2004



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Between Human and Machine

Feedback, Control, and Computing before Cybernetics

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

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.

"[Mindell's] account of this complex story of engineering, people, and organizations—academic, industrial and govenment—is well researched and well told."

"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."

"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."

"The book is an eye-opener in understanding who our engineering ancestors were and what they did."

"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."

"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."

"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."

"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."

"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."

"A rare historian who insightfully understands both the creators of technology and the technology they create, David Mindell engagingly tells a story of technological change in an organizational context. In Between Human and Machine, he provides a revealing account of a search for controls in a twentieth-century world of complex systems."

"This is a terrific book, well written and distinguished for its solid scholarship, technical expertise, and historical sophistication."

"David Mindell's Between Human and Machine successfully takes on the daunting task of exploring the machines behind the cybernetic decades of mid-century. It is a book of range and depth, moving from the sophisticated new weapons systems of World War II to the technologies, including the computer, that so marked the postwar era. By digging deep into the machines themselves, into the problems of feedback and stability—but also into management and political context—Mindell brings us a real sense of this transformative moment in the history of technical culture. The implications of this alteration in the concept of a machine will be with us for a long time to come, and this book is a first-rate place to understand its origins."

"Mindell's authoritative mastery of the disparate technologies he traces will secure this book an influential place in the historiography of science and technology in World War II."

"Masterful! Between Human and Machine is an insightful and highly readable account of the people and the ideas that paved the way for modern computing."

"Engineering education, research and practice of the past half century was deeply influenced by the systems built during World War Il. In this perceptive book, David Mindell shows that systems built during the decades before the war and the concepts underlying them played a key role in the success of the war effort."

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