Detail map of Manhattan, New York, New York, United States,Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States,Paris, Île-de-France, France

A: Manhattan, New York, New York, United States, B: Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States, C: Paris, Île-de-France, France

Norbert Wiener Issues "Cybernetics", the First Widely Distributed Book on Electronic Computing

The first American printing of Cybernetics.

The first American printing of Cybernetics.

"Use the word 'cybernetics', Norbert, because nobody knows what it means. This will always put you at an advantage in arguments."

— Widely quoted: attributed to Claude Shannon in a letter to Norbert Wiener in the 1940s.

 In 1948 mathematician Norbert Wiener at MIT published Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, a widely circulated and influential book that applied theories of information and communication to both biological systems and machines. Computer-related words with the “cyber” prefix, including "cyberspace," originate from Wiener’s book. Cybernetics was also the first conventionally published book to discuss electronic digital computing. Writing as a mathematician rather than an engineer, Wiener’s discussion was theoretical rather than specific. Strangely the first edition of the book was published in English in Paris at the press of Hermann et Cie. The first American edition was printed offset from the French sheets and issued by John Wiley in New York, also in 1948. I have never seen an edition printed or published in England. 

Independently of Claude Shannon, Wiener conceived of communications engineering as a brand of statistical physics and applied this viewpoint to the concept of information. Wiener's chapter on "Time series, information, and communication" contained the first publication of Wiener's formula describing the probability density of continuous information. This was remarkably close to Shannon's formula dealing with discrete time published in A Mathematical Theory of Communication (1948). Cybernetics also contained a chapter on "Computing machines and the nervous system." This was a theoretical discussion, influenced by McCulloch and Pitts, of differences and similarities between information processing in the electronic computer and the human brain. It contained a discussion of the difference between human memory and the different computer memories then available. Tacked on at the end of Cybernetics were speculations by Wiener about building a chess-playing computer, predating Shannon's first paper on the topic.

Cybernetics is a peculiar, rambling blend of popular and highly technical writing, ranging from history to philosophy, to mathematics, to information and communication theory, to computer science, and to biology. Reflecting the amazingly wide range of the author's interests, it represented an interdisciplinary approach to information systems both in biology and machines. It influenced a generation of scientists working in a wide range of disciplines. In it were the roots of various elements of computer science, which by the mid-1950s had broken off from cybernetics to form their own specialties. Among these separate disciplines were information theory, computer learning, and artificial intelligence.

It is probable that Wiley had Hermann et Cie supervise the typesetting because they specialized in books on mathematics.  Hermann printed the first edition by letterpress; the American edition was printed offset from the French sheets. Perhaps because the typesetting was done in France Wiener did not have the opportunity to read proofs carefully, as the first edition contained many typographical errors which were repeated in the American edition, and which remained uncorrected through the various printings of the American edition until a second edition was finally published by John Wiley and MIT Press in 1961. 

Though the book contained a lot of technical mathematics, and was not written for a popular audience, the first American edition went through at least 5 printings during 1948,  and several later printings, most of which were probably not read in their entirety by purchasers. Sales of Wiener's book were helped by reviews in wide circulation journals such as the review in TIME Magazine on December 27, 1948, entitled "In Man's Image." The reviewer used the word calculator to describe the machines; at this time the word computer was reserved for humans.

"Some modern calculators 'remember' by means of electrical impulses circulating for long periods around closed circuits. One kind of human memory is believed to depend on a similar system: groups of neurons connected in rings. The memory impulses go round & round and are called upon when needed. Some calculators use 'scanning' as in television. So does the brain. In place of the beam of electrons which scans a television tube, many physiologists believe, the brain has 'alpha waves': electrical surges, ten per second, which question the circulating memories.

"By copying the human brain, says Professor Wiener, man is learning how to build better calculating machines. And the more he learns about calculators, the better he understands the brain. The cyberneticists are like explorers pushing into a new country and finding that nature, by constructing the human brain, pioneered there before them.

"Psychotic Calculators. If calculators are like human brains, do they ever go insane? Indeed they do, says Professor Wiener. Certain forms of insanity in the brain are believed to be caused by circulating memories which have got out of hand. Memory impulses (of worry or fear) go round & round, refusing to be suppressed. They invade other neuron circuits and eventually occupy so much nerve tissue that the brain, absorbed in its worry, can think of nothing else.

"The more complicated calculating machines, says Professor Wiener, do this too. An electrical impulse, instead of going to its proper destination and quieting down dutifully, starts circulating lawlessly. It invades distant parts of the mechanism and sets the whole mass of electronic neurons moving in wild oscillations" (,9171,886484-2,00.html, accessed 03-05-2009).

Presumably the commercial success of Cybernetics encouraged Wiley to publish Berkeley's Giant Brains, or Machines that Think in 1949.

♦ In October 2012 I offered for sale the copy of the first American printing of Cybernetics that Wiener inscribed to Jerry Wiesner, the head of the laboratory at MIT where Wiener conducted his research. This was the first inscribed copy of the first edition (either the French or American first) that I had ever seen on the market, though the occasional signed copy of the American edition did turn up. Having read our catalogue description of that item, my colleague Arthur Freeman emailed me this story pertinent to Wiener's habit of not inscribing books:

"Norbert, whom I grew up nearby (he visited our converted barn in Belmont, Mass., constantly to play frantic theoretical blackboard math with my father, an economist/statistician at MIT, which my mother, herself a bit better at pure math, would have to explain to him later), was a notorious cheapskate. His wife once persuaded him to invite some colleagues out for a beer at the Oxford Grill in Harvard Square, which he did, and after a fifteen-minute sipping session, he got up to go, and solemnly collected one dime each from each of his guests. So when *Cybernetics* appeared on the shelves of the Harvard Coop Bookstore, my father was surprised and flattered that Norbert wanted him to have an inscribed copy, and together they went to Coop, where Norbert duly picked one out, wrote in it, and carried it to the check-out counter--where he ceremoniously handed it over to my father to pay for. This was a great topic of family folklore. I wonder if Jerry Wiesner paid for his copy too?"

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