Between Human and Machine: Feedback, Control, and Computing before Cybernetics (Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology) 0th Edition
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"[Mindell's] account of this complex story of engineering, people, and organizations―academic, industrial and govenment―is well researched and well told."(Stuart Bennett International Journal of Adaptive Control and Signal Processing)
"While one might think a history of servomechanisms, feedback loops, and fire control systems would be of interest only to a narrow audience, one of David A. Mindell's great achievements in this rich and multilayered book is to show the centrality of control systems―the machines (and humans) that control machines―to the history of computing, the history of technology, and indeed to American history in the twentieth century."(Ross Bassett American Historical Review)
"In contextualizing the theory of cybernetics, Mindell gives engineering back forgotten parts of its history, and shows how important historical circumstances are to technological change... Mindell is scrupulous about providing this historical context; providing biographical insight into the major players in the history; and giving the reader a good sense of what it was like to be a Bell Labs scientist, or an engineer for Sperry."(Michele Tepper Networker)
"The book is an eye-opener in understanding who our engineering ancestors were and what they did."(David L. Elliott IEEE Control Systems Magazine)
"In an exceptionally insightful and lucid account, Mindell shows how engineering cultures emerging in specific institutional contexts profoundly shaped the design of human–machine systems and defined the human operator as part of a larger technological system."(Slava Gerovitch IEEE Annals of the History of Computing)
"This is a good and surprising book. It is good in its articulate survey of dynamic man-machine systems in the period from 1916 to 1948; it is surprising in its convincing revision of our picture of the origins of the computer and cybernetics."(Larry Owens Technology and Culture)
"The reader who makes the effort to follow Mindell's argument will be rewarded with a fresh insight into the emergence of the digital computer and all that its invention implies."(Paul E. Ceruzzi Journal of American History)
"This book is the first major study by a professional historian and as such should help to draw the attention of historians to the embeddedness of feedback control in 20th century technological systems."(Stuart Bennett International Journal of Adaptive Control and Signal Processing)
"A joy for both engineers and historians... 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."(Karl D. Stephan IEEE Technology and Society Magazine)
"A rare historian who insightfully understands both the creators of technology and the technology they create, David Mindell engagingly tells a story of technological change in an organizational context. In Between Human and Machine, he provides a revealing account of a search for controls in a twentieth-century world of complex systems."(Thomas P. Hughes, author of Rescuing Prometheus and American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, 1870-1970)
From the Publisher
"Mindell's authoritative mastery of the disparate technologies he traces will secure this book an influential place in the historiography of science and technology in World War II."Alex Roland, Duke University
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Mindell's book sheds valuable light on the contributions of many brilliant technologists, among them Thornton Fry, Harold Black, Harry Nyquist, George Stibitz, Hendrik Bode, and Claude Shannon from Bell Labs, and Harold Hazen, Gordon Brown, Norbert Wiener, and Samuel Caldwell of MIT. His book also adds further evidence of the extraordinary legacies of Vannevar Bush and Warren Weaver. During World War II, Bush headed the National Defense Research Committee that provided an avenue for civilian scientists to contribute toward military technologies. Bush chose his friend mathematician Weaver from the Rockefeller Foundation to steer the important project of fire control. Going beyond Mindell's book, Princeton mathematicians were involved in fire control, since the university was then the epicenter of U.S. mathematics, including Sam Wilks, Merrell Flood, John W. Tukey, Brockway McMillan, among others. Later in the war, Weaver shifted out of managing fire control into leading other NDRC applications of mathematics to problems of WWII. This story has not been told.
It would be good to inform the author that "Shannon Theorem" is elsewhere known as "Kotelnikov-Shannon Theorem", and it would be good to recommed him a book like "Theory of Oscillations" by Andronov, Vitt and Khaiking published by Dover in 1966. This book is reprit of a book published in Soviet Union in 1937. Book is in large part about feedback in nonlinear control systems and describes methods of analysis that are currently used.
Although interesting, this book addresses only small slice of history of automatic control before the era of electronic computers.
It would be easy to describe this book, which is subtitled "Feedback, Control and Computing before Cybernetics", in few words, as a book in the field of the history of technology, concerned mainly with the development of control systems during the period between world wars. But this would be a great injustice, for the text is much more than that. It is a twist-by-twist, close up account of the personal, managerial, institutional, military and even political forces that conjured up to evolve what came to be known as cybernetics, the modern fruits of which - including computers - are rapidly becoming the corner-stone of our technology and an inextricable part of our lives.
Mindell's diversity of interests, encompassing the sciences and the humanities, undoubtedly the result of his childhood experience in an intellectually multidisciplinary family, allows him to embark with great enthusiasm in a highly complex and painstakingly detailed historical account of the development of control systems from the early 1910's to the late 1940's, a topic that - although seemingly dry at first glance - turns out to be surprisingly revealing, a real treat for both historians and systems scientists.
Because of its rigorous form and solid background, this book is a banquet for the historians of technology: sources abound, including as diverse documents as original drawings and first hand accounts, even extracts from the correspondence and personal journals of the main characters of the plot. Mindell adds to the facts his sharp insight, keeping at all times a strictly scholarly approach, even during the description of relevant events of a subjective nature. Episodes in which egotistic attitudes, personal conflicts or short-sighted decisions of the key players, such as the destitution of a bright researcher for obscure reasons, or the rejection of a project that later evolved into the famous ENIAC machine, are described objectively, giving the reader information to asses how they might have affected the later turn of events.
Potential readers that feel no special interest towards the topic of 'control systems' should consider that what is covered in the book under this rather modest label are not only garden-variety feedback circuits and servomechanisms, the history of which would still be of interest, albeit to a more limited audience. Writing about control systems, Mindell encompasses nothing less than a large part of the genealogy, the early ancestors, of what we call today 'computers', a term that - as Mindell has argued in lectures - has been misused over time when talking about the history of calculating and control machines. Given the importance of computers in our days, taking a look at the past that enabled it, with the advantage of hindsight, is a very didactic experience.
I would like to briefly discuss the structure of the book. After a Preface that describes the roots of the author's interest in the topic, and an Introduction that lays out the purpose and methods of the work, Mindell presents four chapters with descriptions of the four leading organizations in diverse aspects of feedback and control, which were later to become crucial in the advancement of control systems: the Bureau of Ordnance (BuOrd) and Ford Instrument Co. duet, Sperry Co., Bell Labs and MIT. Each organization is presented in one chapter, along with a review of its origins, innovation cultures, technical capabilities, fields of specialization, and also the personalities of their main engineers.
From Mindell's account, it seems clear that concrete, practical needs, and not a purely theoretical desire, were behind most of the inventions that drove the field ahead. The first example is the Navy's necessity of fire control devices to help modern-day marksmen in naval battles and later in anti-aircraft combat, which created the opportunity for Hannibal Ford's Rangekeeper, a sort of mechanical calculator, and other increasingly sophisticated machines. The need brought about the equipment, which funded the companies, which in turn advanced the field. However, as they grew in complexity, machines - such as those created by Sperry Co. and others - are portrayed, at least from Mindell's perspective, as a form of self expression of the engineer's ideas, and as an extension of the human user himself: as aids that not only make human work more efficient, but also make it possible at all.
Among the most interesting parts of the book, I count the demythification of the birth of feedback amplification in the epiphany of a young engineer (Black) while contemplating the Statue of Liberty. Mindell brings into the picture the collaboration of Black with Bode and Nyquist, while they were working in the legendary Bell Labs, to bring stable amplification into the reach of control systems, by means of negative feedback and vacuum tubes. Then comes MIT's grand contribution in these early days, as Mindell explains, with the work of Harold Hazen, a disciple of Vannevar Bush, mainly focused in power systems, which opened the door to the theory of servomechanisms and to flexible and programmable analog computing machines, that would give a dynamic dimension to the so-far rigid control systems of the time.
It is enlightening to realize how, in their quest to obtain a new understanding and to develop a new technology, each organization was limited in some way by the knowledge and technology they already had mastered. In some sort of real-life version of the metaphor of the hammer wanting to see everything around it in the shape of nails, each one of these pioneer companies and men tried very often to approach the problems of the control machines using the ideas they already had at hand. Here the modern day practitioner of system sciences can find a valuable lesson, that sounds cliché, but is often overlooked: finding answers to new problems almost always requires new ways of thinking.
After dissecting the four organizations separately, Mindell dedicates the next chapter to describe the first major interaction of these groups, that he nicknames "the Four Horsemen", in a large scale project: the construction of the telescope in Mount Palomar, a massive and heavy, yet precise, instrument: "the perfect machine". Here the war-time technology that had guided cannons to destroy enemy ships in the open sea, was now entering civilian life through the golden gates of astronomy, used to help aim the giant mirrors of the telescope towards the heavens. Mindell asserts that it is at this point when stronger connections begin to appear among the practitioners of the control system techniques, bringing key players into contact and linking universities and the military even more.
Then comes the Second War, which transformed everything. Mindell convincingly demonstrates how the bonds created during the Palomar project proved decisive for the military projects. New, more complex military problems, especially in the field of anti-aircraft systems, required that the "Four" be summoned again. America, argues Mindell, had never before seen such a large scale collaboration between universities, industry and the military, driven by the urgent needs of the war. The impact over the development of control systems is tremendous, as is the increase in depth and width of the interaction between human and machine. So, it would be fair to say that the field of cybernetics was born in the battlefields of design rooms, propelled by human ingenuity under the pressure of an enemy threat.
The careful reader will appreciate Mindell's clarity of analysis, which on the one hand accepts the huge role that geniuses such as Wiener played in propitiating the appearance of cybernetics, and on the other hand clarifies that - in spite of his egocentric claims - Wiener was not the first to conceive the idea of human and machine interaction at this level. The vision of such a blend, to the point of merging the human and mechanical entities in the arguments as birds of a feather, permeates Mindell's book from cover to cover. In this iPod era, it might be hard to accept Mindell's repeated insinuations that humans were becoming more intertwined with machines since the first half of the past century, a stance conveyed in phrases such as those describing the "blurring of the human-machine boundary", or depicting "controls as extension of humans", and epitomized in some of Alfred Crimi's majestic translucent drawings presented in the book. However, all it takes is a honest, deep meditation to realize that, at least to some degree, this claim of Mindell has a strong hold on reality.
It would be an exaggeration to claim that every page of this book reads easily. But then again, as an academic work, it doesn't have to. Some paragraphs at the beginning of the volume that are dedicated to demarcating what is new in this work when compared to others about similar topics, result a bit too dry to be placed so early in the text, and this could mitigate the interest of secular reader. Of course, they are essential for the researchers who want to stand over Mindell's shoulders, and deserve a place in the work. However, placing them later, or maybe as an appendix, could help maintain the initial momentum.
Not just anybody could have written this dense, fact-packed, intense book, because it has the traits of both a history study and an engineering systems treatise. In the endless ocean of engineering professionals that populate the modern world, the sub-species of system engineers - those who struggle to understand the dynamics of large, complex engineering systems - is still a very uncommon breed. Finding one that has both a clear vision of this field and, more importantly, an honest desire to invest several years of his productive life to surgically dissect the evolution of human understanding of control systems, and on top of that is fully conversant in history, articulate and passionate about his topic, is a sort of miracle. Such an ave raris is indeed what it took to tackle the gigantic task of chronicling the advent of cybernetics, how it was conceived as an idea, how it evolved in the rarefied environment of the inter-war decades and during the Second War itself, and how it was spun to be incorporated into commercial and civilian life.
Even those of us with a lesser interest in the history of technology per se, such as the young system engineers of the present day, perhaps more focused on the uncertainties of the future than on the intrigues of the past, will find benefit enormously from reading Mindell's book. Not least because his research demonstrates repeatedly that the advance of a scientific field does not depend only on scientific factors: also the interaction between human beings, with their flaws and virtues, and the management of their organizations, has to be considered as an enabler or disabler of any discovery. In the concrete case of control systems during the first half of the 20th century, the interpersonal relations between researchers, the exchanges of knowledge between institutions, and even the overarching goals set forward by the military, were very real factors in the shaping of our world.
Many are the lessons and insights we can gain from meditating on the history of control systems described in this book. I highly recommend it to my colleagues in the field of Engineering Systems.