Between Human and Machine: Feedback, Control, and Computing Before Cybernetics [Book Review]

  • K. D. Stephan
  • Published 2004 in IEEE Technology and Society Magazine

Abstract

Karl D. Stephan, Treasurer of IEEE-SSIT, is Associate Professor in the Department of Technology at Texas State University-San Marcos, San Marcos, TX. M any readers of Technology & Society Magazine recently participated in an IEEE-sponsored survey designed to measure how well SSIT is meeting its members’ needs. One of the survey questions asked members to indicate how interested they were in seeing more coverage of various subjects that T&S Magazine has addressed over the years. I was not entirely surprised to note that the subject “history of electrotechnology” came in dead last. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the average T&S reader has no interest in the history of technology. Most engineers I know who have even a slight interest in the social and cultural aspects of technology enjoy reading good technical histories, especially if the subject is a technology with which they are familiar. I think most of our readers understand that T & S is not, after all, a journal devoted primarily to the history of technology and science, which partly explains the low ranking of that subject in the poll. Journals such as Technology & Culture and Isis fill that bill quite well. Because there is not much room in T&S for history per se, there is all the more reason to bring good histories of technology to the attention of our readers, especially when those histories address the human-machine interface directly. Between Human and Machine is such a book. The author, David Mindell, holds the Frances and David Dibner Chair in the history of engineering and manufacturing at M.I.T. He combines in his person most of the characteristics of an ideal historian of technology: excellent training (he studied under Leo Marx and Merritt Roe Smith at M.I.T.), a thorough working familiarity with his technical subject (he was a control systems engineer with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution for several years), and a gift for clear, engaging prose. These traits make reading Between Human and Machine a joy for both engineers and historians. While Mindell is reluctant to term his work a prehistory of cybernetics between World Wars I and II, that is the simplest way to summarize its scope. The polymath Norbert Wiener coined the word “cybernetics” around 1948 to express the intimate relationship between control and communication that he foresaw as giving birth to a new science. Many histories of control systems begin with Wiener and his work, which is, incidentally, just how Wiener would have wanted it. 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. These roots go back at least to the turn of the twentieth century — even further, if we building military radars for 20 years. The fortunes of engineers are so closely tied to the ebb and flow of our market economy as well as our space/defense budget that anyone who enters this profession is headed for a rough ride. Perhaps the wisdom we should impart to our children who follow this road is the advice that Joseph gave the Pharoah: there are fat and lean years and you’d better start preparing for the lean ones when the good times roll. From David’s father we learn that you should think twice before taking a job that you can’t explain to your children. Finally, like David’s mother, you’d best believe in something deeper than the romance of technology.

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