The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







Cybernetics is a theory of the communication and control of regulatory feedback. The term cybernetics stems from the Greek Κυβερνήτης (meaning steersman, governor, pilot, or rudder). Cybernetics is the discipline that studies communication and control in living beings or machines.

A more philosophical definition, suggested in 1958 by Louis Couffignal , one of the pioneers of cybernetics in the 1930s, considers cybernetics as "the art of assuring efficiency of action" (see external links for reference).

Then there is second-order cybernetics.



The modern study of cybernetics began at the intersection of neurology, electronic network theory and logic modelling around the time of WWII. The name 'cybernetics' was coined by Norbert Wiener to denote the study of "teleological mechanisms" and was popularized through his book Cybernetics, or control and communication in the animal and machine, (1948)

The word cybernetics ('cybernétique') had also, unbeknownst to Wiener, been used in 1834 by the physicist André-Marie Ampère (1775-1836) to denote the sciences of government in his classification system of human knowledge.

The study of "teleological mechanisms" in machinery (i.e. machines with corrective feedback) dates back at least to the late 1700s when James Watt's steam engine was equipped with a governor. In 1868 James Clerk Maxwell published a theoretical article on governors. In 1938 the Romanian scientist Stefan Odobleja has published in Paris the book "Psychologie consonantiste" describing many cybernetic principles. In the 1940s the study and mathematical modelling of regulatory processes became a continuing research effort and two key articles were published in 1943 ("Behavior, Purpose and Teleology" by Arturo Rosenblueth, Norbert Wiener, and Julian Bigelow and "A Logical Calculus of the Ideas Immanent in Nervous Activity" by Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts).

Cybernetics as a discipline was firmly established by Wiener, McCullough and others, such as William Ross Ashby and Grey Walter. Together with the US and UK, an important geographical locus of early cybernetics was France where Wiener's book was first published.

In the spring of 1947, Wiener was invited to a congress on harmonic analysis, held in Nancy, France and organized by the bourbakist mathematician, Szolem Mandelbrot (1899-1983), uncle of the world famous mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot.

During this stay in France, Wiener received the offer to write a manuscript on the unifying character of this part of applied mathematics, which is found in the study of Brownian motion and in telecommunication engineering. The following summer, back in the United States, Wiener decided to introduce the neologism cybernetics into his scientific theory.

Wiener popularized the social implications of cybernetics, drawing analogies between automatic systems such as a regulated steam engine and human institutions in his best-selling The Human Use of Human Beings : Cybernetics and Society (Houghton-Mifflin, 1950).

Cybernetics is somewhat erroneously associated in many people's minds with robotics, due to uses such as Douglas Adams' Sirius Cybernetics Corporation and the concept of a cyborg, a term first popularized by Clynes and Kline in 1960.


In scholarly terms, cybernetics is the study of systems and control in an abstracted sense — that is, it is not grounded in any one empirical field.

The emphasis is on the functional relations that hold between the different parts of a system, rather than the parts themselves. These relations include the transfer of information, and circular relations (feedback) that result in emergent phenomena such as self-organization, and autopoiesis. The main innovation brought about by cybernetics is an understanding of goal-directedness or purpose as resulting from a negative feedback loop which minimizes the deviation between the perceived situation and the desired situation (goal).

Ampère's earlier use of the term echoes in the development of second-order cybernetics , which includes observers as part of whatever system is being studied.

Major Fields

See also


  • Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, (Hermann Editions in Paris; Cambridge: MIT Press,Wiley & Sons in NY 1948),
  • Ashby, W. R. (1956) Introduction to Cybernetics. Methuen, London. (electronically republished at [1]).
  • Heylighen F. & Joslyn C. (2001): "Cybernetics and Second Order Cybernetics", in: R.A. Meyers (ed.), Encyclopedia of Physical Science & Technology (3rd ed.), Vol. 4, (Academic Press, New York), p. 155-170.
  • Manfred E. Clynes, and Nathan S. Kline, (1960) "Cyborgs and Space", Astronautics, September, pp. 26-27 and 74-75; reprinted in Gray, Mentor, and Figueroa-Sarriera, eds., The Cyborg Handbook, New York: Routledge, 1995, pp. 29-34.

External links

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Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04