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David Mindell:
"Between Human and Machine: Feedback, Control, and Computing Before Cybernetics"

Judith Donath

Tuesday, December 03, 2002, 4:00 PM EST

Bartos Theatre, MIT Media Lab (E15)

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The idea that computers emerged first as calculating devices and then became networked, interactive machines is wrong. Communications, real-time control, and human machine interaction were embedded in computing from the start. 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. This talk shows how the modern sciences of systems emerged from disparate engineering cultures and their convergence during World War II. The talk lays out four different arenas of human/machine interaction, beginning decades before such topics are usually recognized: from fire controls for naval guns to Elmer Sperry's automatic pilots, to Harold Black's negative feedback amplifiers, Nyquist's sampling theorem, and Harold Hazen's theory of servomechanisms. These engineers developed the machines and ideas that define today's world of networks, simulations, and human-machine interaction. This history leads us to rethink the history of digital computing, not as a discontinuous break between old and new, but rather as part of a larger history of mechanical representations of the world.

David A. Mindell is Dibner Associate Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT. He has degrees in electrical engineering and literature from Yale University and a PhD in the history of technology from MIT. He is founder and director of the MIT "DeepArch" research group in technology, archaeology, and the deep sea, and a visiting investigator in the Deep Submergence Laboratory of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He has spent more than a decade participating in oceanographic cruises including expeditions that discovered and mapped shipwrecks in Guadalcanal, the Lusitania, the Yorktown, and ancient Roman and Phoenician ships in the Mediterranean and Black Seas. His books, War, Technology, and Experience Aboard the USS MONITOR, and Between Human and Machine: Feedback, Control, and Computing before Cybernetics are both available from the Johns Hopkins University Press. He is currently writing a book on the role of simulation and computing in the Apollo program, and developing high-precision sonars for deep ocean navigation and remote sensing.

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