"Cybernetics is the science
of control and communication
in the animal and the machine."

Norbert Wiener

Vaucanson's duck

On these pages you will find an easy-to-understand introduction to cybernetics and management cybernetics. Further information is available in Methods, models. In Articles there is a range of different contributions on the topic. Misunderstandings and errors contains information that will help you to orientate yourself and to clarify different interpretations and opinions.

The idea that living beings and machines function on the basis of the same principles dates back to long before the birth of cybernetics. In 1738 Jacques de Vaucanson, a famous 18th century inventor of automata, constructed a perfect model of a duck that could "digest" food.


The term "cybernetics" was first used in 1834 by the French physicist André-Marie Amperé (1775-1836) to describe "the science of managing processes". Elsewhere he refers to it as "the science of government".


However, the origins of modern cybernetics as a recognized science are to be found around one hundred years later. The pioneering principles of the new scientific field of regulation, control and communications in systems were developed primarily by:

Norbert Wiener Warren McCulloch W. Ross Ashby
Warren Weaver Claude Shannon Gregory Bateson
Heinz von Foerster John von Neumann Walter Pitts

These pioneers were supported by the Josiah Macy Foundation. The new scientific field of cybernetics emerged from the interdisciplinary and now legendary Macy conferences. In 1948 Norbert Wiener published his book "Cybernetics".

The word "cybernetics" comes from the Greek term "kybernetes", which means "helmsman". In 1949, the Austrian physicist Heinz von Foerster suggested to the participants in the Macy conferences that this word should be chosen as the name for their new research field and received general approval. Until then they had been using the phrase "circular, causal and feedback mechanisms in biological and social systems" to describe it, which Heinz von Foerster felt was far too complicated.

Norbert Wiener's book and his definition of cybernetics soon also generated considerable interest outside this group of scientists. The idea that a scientific discipline involving communication and control could also be used by unscrupulous governments for manipulation purposes also aroused concern. This was covered by Norbert Wiener in his book "The Human Use of Human Beings". These early fears turned out to be fully justified. Stafford Beer also found himself repeatedly confronted with the same problems in his work. Heinz von Foerster, who established and managed a Biological Computer Laboratory at the University of Illinois, turned increasingly to issues of ethics and language as a result of his research findings. Play this video and find out for yourself about The Beginnings of Cybernetics from Heinz von Foerster.

Click on the Introduction to management cybernetics to read an easy-to-understand overview of the theories of Stafford Beer.


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