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Norbert Wiener

Norbert Wiener (November 26, 1894 - March 18, 1964) was an American mathematician, known as the founder of cybernetics. He created the term in his book Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (MIT Press, 1948), widely recognized as one of the most important books of contemporary scientific thinking.

He was born in Columbia, Missouri, the first child of Leo and Bertha Wiener. Leo was an instructor in Slavic Languages at Harvard who used his own high-pressure methods to educate Norbert at home until he was seven; he entered school only briefly before resuming the majority of his studies at home. Between his father's tutelage and his own abilities, Wiener became a child prodigy. In 1903 he returned to school, graduating from Ayer High School in 1906.

In September 1906, aged eleven, he entered Tufts College to study mathematics. He received his bachelor's degree from Tufts in 1909 and entered Harvard. At Harvard he studied zoology but in 1910 he transferred to Cornell to begin graduate studies in philosophy, returning to Harvard the next year to continue his philosophy studies. Wiener received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1912 at age 18, for a dissertation on mathematical logic.

From Harvard he went to Cambridge, England and studied under Bertrand Russell and G. H. Hardy. In 1914 he studied at Göttingen, Germany under David Hilbert and Edmund Landau. He then returned to Cambridge and then back to the USA. In 1915-16 he taught philosophy courses at Harvard, worked for General Electric and then Encyclopedia Americana before working on ballistics at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. He remained in Maryland until the end of the war, when he took up a post as instructor in mathematics at MIT (after being rejected for a position at the University of Melbourne). Wiener was known among the students for his poor lecture style, his jokes, and his absent-mindedness. He was known to be hypersensitive to criticism, and subject to fits of depression.

While working at MIT he frequently travelled to Europe. In 1926 he married a German immigrant named Margaret Engemann , with whom he would have two daughters, and then returned to Europe as a Guggenheim scholar . He spent most of his time at Göttingen or with Hardy at Cambridge, working on Brownian motion, the Fourier integral, Dirichlet's problem, harmonic analysis and Tauberian theorems among other problems.

During World War II his work on gunnery control encouraged him to synthesize his interests in communication theory into cybernetics. After the war, his prominence guaranteed him enough clout to arrange for some of the brightest young researchers in artificial intelligence, computer science, and neuropsychology to join him at MIT; then, suddenly and inexplicably, he broke off all contact with the members of this painstakingly assembled research team. Speculation still flourishes as to the reasons why; whether they were professional, or related to his hypersensitive personality. Whatever the reason, it led to the premature end of one of the most promising scientific collaborative research teams of the era.

Nevertheless, Wiener went on himself to break new ground in cybernetics, robotics, computer control, and automation. He remained generous with his research, freely sharing his theories and findings as well as credit for his work. Unfortunately this led to suspicion during the Cold War era, as his equal support of researchers in the Soviet Union raised scrutiny.

He died in 1964 in Stockholm, Sweden, at age 69.


Wiener won the Bôcher Prize in 1933 and the National Medal of Science in 1964, shortly before his death.

The Norbert Wiener Prize in Applied Mathematics was endowed in 1967 in honor of Norbert Wiener by MIT's mathematics department and is provided jointly by the American Mathematical Society and Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics .

The Norbert Wiener Award for Social and Professional Responsibility awarded annually by CPSR, was established in 1987 in honor of Norbert Wiener to recognize contributions by computer professionals to socially responsible use of computers.


Published works include The Human Use of Human Beings (1950), Ex-Prodigy (1953), I am a Mathematician (1956), Nonlinear Problems in Random Theory (1958), and God & Golem, Inc.: A Comment on Certain Points Where Cybernetics Impinges on Religion (1964).

A brief profile of Dr. Wiener is given in The Observer newspaper, Sunday, 28 January 1951.

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