Is it possible for a sole field of study to encompass philosophy, mathematics, biology, cognitive science, computer science, sociology, political science, economics, and more? To attempt to answer some of the most complex questions out there about the diverse systems—biological, social, technological, and more—that govern our lives? That, in a nutshell, is the field of cybernetics—the “antidisciplinary” science that formed the core of Ricardo B. Uribe’s research at the University of Illinois.
Born in Santiago, Chile, in 1935, Uribe studied electrical engineering at the University of Chile before joining the institution’s teaching and research staff. In the early 1970s he worked on Project Cybersyn, a project supported by the Chilean government that employed cybernetic approaches to organize and reform the country’s economy. Political turmoil, however, changed the course of Uribe’s life and career when General Augusto Pinochet seized power in the 1973 Chilean coup d’état. Uribe and his family fled, seeking refuge in Illinois where renowned cybernetician Heinz von Foerster (whose papers are also held by the University of Illinois Archives) had created a position for him in UIUC’s Biological Computer Laboratory (BCL).
Education and the ways in which humans understand the systems surrounding them are two threads interwoven throughout Uribe’s work; these reflect both the cybernetic research interests of the time and his own lived experiences. Much of Uribe’s early writing relates to “autopoiesis” —the process by which a system is able to self-maintain, reproduce, and create the components it needs to expand—and the implications of autopoietic systems for relativity, human understanding, and various forms of modeling. A variation on this concept is demonstrated by W. Ross Ashby’s elementary Non-Trivial Machine (NTM), a device contained in the Ricardo B. Uribe Papers. Ashby was a cybernetician contemporary of Uribe; Von Foerster had coined the term “non-trivial machine” to describe any system in which the “input-output relationship is not invariant, but is determined by the machine’s previous output.” The machine does utilize input, but like an autopoietic system has an independent internal state and constantly produces new operations as to maintain a condition of unpredictability.
Ashby’s NTM consists of an aluminum box with two switches and two lights. The observer’s task is to determine the internal structure of the system by flipping the switches and watching the lights. One of the switches, however, changes the internal configuration of the box whenever it is flipped. The purpose of this machine was to exemplify the environment in which an artificial brain may operate, and to demonstrate the difficulty of understanding human cognition—perhaps the ultimate non-trivial machine. Autopoiesis, while not equivalent to cognition, is considered one of the prerequisites of a cognitive system.
Uribe’s views on education were also central to his career and work. In his magnum opus, TractatusParadoxico-Philosphicus: A Philosophical Approach to Education, Uribe described education as a recursive system:
“If humans rather instruct than educate their children, these children will instruct their children even more (educating them even less), and they in turn will similarly do with their own children and so on and on. If humans do not perish at the hands of uneducated leaders, sooner than later they will grow into a population of morons who only obey rules, predictable creatures, ants of an anthill, humans no more. The sad (happy?) end of the story: awareness of their own shortcomings will thoroughly escape them.”
This passage calls back to the violence and bloodshed Uribe would have witnessed during and after the 1973 Chilean coup d’état, and defines his approach to instruction at the University of Illinois. In addition to his work in BCL, Uribe established the Advanced Digital Systems Laboratory (ADSL) to bring together students across disciplines and encourage creative, collaborative, and unconventional problem solving. ADSL continues today as the Advanced Digital Projects Laboratory, and is an undergraduate/graduate course open to qualified students from all colleges. Uribe’s philosophy also shaped the curriculum of “ECE 110: Introduction to Electrical and Computer Engineering,” which introduces first year students to ECE principles in a hands-on and explorative manner. The central project of the course—working in groups to design “an autonomous electric vehicle” able to navigate an unknown course—is Uribe’s design.
In addition to TractatusParadoxico-Philosophicusand the NTM, the Archives’ recent donation of Uribe’s papers include years of BCL reprints and reports, manuscripts relating cybernetics to other scientific and humanistic fields, conference materials, American Society for Cybernetics documents, and select course materials. Uribe’s legacy is one of curiosity—asking big questions and encouraging others to think in unconventional ways, question the status quos of both life and learning, and discover for themselves.
 James Hutchinson, “Remembering Ricardo Uribe, Founder of ECE’s Advanced Digital Projects Laboratory,”Grainger College of Engineering Electrical & Computer Engineering, last modified October 13, 2019, https://ece.illinois.edu/newsroom/news/4295.
 Heinz von Foerster, “Perception of the Future and the Future of Perception,” BCL Publication 198, photomechanically reproduced from Instructional Science, 1, 1, (March 1974): 31-43, Record Series 11/6/40, Box 3, University of Illinois Archives.
 Ricardo B. Uribe, “TractatusParadoxico-Philosophicus: A Philosophical Approach to Education,” Red Edition, Copyright 1991-2007, Record Series 11/6/40, Box 6, University of Illinois Archives.
 Ricardo B. Uribe et al., “A design laboratory in electrical and computer engineering for freshmen,” IEEE Transactions on Education, vol. 37, issue 2 (May 1994): 194-202, doi: 10.1109/13.284994.
The Ricardo B. Uribe Papers were processed with generous funding from the Thomas M. Siebel Endowment for the History of Science.
90 years ago this year, Champaign-Urbana was allegedly on the brink of collapse from the threat of communist arsonists roaming Central Illinois. Churches were burned to the ground, schools were armed with guards, and sheriffs were on high alert. Smoke and fear wafted through the air placing anyone in the twin cities in danger’s path. That’s at least the story that the media tried spinning for everyone. Images captured by Bernard Strauch the morning after the University Place Church Fire uncovered a story of two red scares– flames and commies alike –in March 1932.
Monday March 7th, 1932, the Urbana Daily Courier broke the story “University Place Church Burns” describing a massive blaze that had engulfed the University Place Church on the corner of Springfield Avenue and South Wright Street. The news report tells a harrowing tale of the building’s caretaker Walter Garland, and his wife who lived in the basement apartment of the church. After catching the smell of smoke late Saturday night, both rushed from the building and barely escaped as a fireball swallowed the building and collapsed the roof in. Fire departments arrived immediately to put out the blaze, but it was too late. The building had been completely destroyed in a matter of minutes, so they took to watering down the exteriors of adjacent buildings to prevent a spread of damage. Early reports Sunday morning listed the damages at $100,000, but by Wednesday the estimates were upwards of $150,000.
The Champaign News-Gazette quoted the fire-chief on the matter, and the facts seemed relatively cut-and-dry: An aging boiler had started leaking and helped ignite the furnace and the resulting explosion started the fire. Everyone should be on alert to avoid leaving exposed flames near their boilers because it was a serious risk. However, the Champaign-Urbana newspapers didn’t find the story the police reports gave to be that simple. On one side, the news reported a revitalization of unity within the community. Students and community members rallied behind Reverend Fisher and found new spaces for the congregation to gather. There was even a reported increase in religious service attendance in the following months. A June 1932 article notes that the church had fully rebuilt its parishioner index card list larger than it ever had been. A March 12th Daily Illini article reports that university classes on religion were quickly relocated to the University High auditorium, and student prayer was held in Smith Hall at 10:30 AM on Sundays. However, on the other side of the matter was a skeptical media that amplified the voices that inspired panic and quieted the voices of those trying to calm the public down.
On a report from the confidant of a friend of the postmaster (Urbana’s local anti-communist leader), The News-Gazette reported there were two supposed communist “incendiarists” that had been ravaging Central Illinois for weeks. So, pretty much “a friend of a friend” assured him there were commies on the loose. The Urbana Daily Courier and The Daily Illini ran almost daily stories about updates from fires in nearby Bloomington and Lincoln Illinois. Their stories had started to feed into one another creating an almost feedback loop of anxiety over the matter. By chance, the third ransom note in the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping case had been published the same day as the fire, so the newspaper oozed conspiracy and crimes all over the incendiarist worries.
The powder keg of public worry blew when the mayor announced a ‘shoot to kill order’ following a tip from the Urbana Postmaster John Gray. He had, on his authority, “shown” that the communists were involved in this alleged scheme. John Gray, just one day before the fire, issued a report that communists were not threatening Champaign-Urbana. Organized labor was “against communism because the wages they now receive are enough that they can afford the luxuries of life that would be unavailable under a communistic [sic] system”. 48 hours later, an “informant” reported to John Gray that two communists fled the scene of the church fire. In response, the city placed armed guards inside all public schools in the area. Despite all the chaos, the University’s supervising architect, James White, refused to post guards in university buildings. He denied any communist conspiracy and trusted a March 13th report that each fire was an accident.
It was not until Tuesday March 22nd that state-deputy-fire-marshal [sic] Thomas Abrams declared that each fire from Bloomington to Champaign was “not of incendiary nature” and were each a product of a “likely overheated boiler”. The story of the two arsonists faded into nothingness overnight! Strauch’s images of the church at University Place along with images before its destruction are displayed in this post. We still face the same issues of mass panic, media frenzies on inaccurate information, and fear of terrorism. It’s interesting how just a few snapshots of one church can reveal so much about how history doesn’t just repeat, but it tends to rhyme
The influence of the Crash Test Dummies Vince and Larry is hard to overstate. Twenty-five years after they rode off into the sunset, Vince and Larry still are celebrated for how many lives they, and their associated Ad Council campaign, saved. The importance of this campaign makes it critical to make notice of the safety PSAs that came before Vince and Larry. Long before they crashed into our living rooms for the first time, the Ad Council strove to protect Americans from accident misinformation. While not as successful as campaigns to come, the 1960s Safety Belt campaign served as an incubator for future ideas and practices. The earlier campaign’s shortcomings and setbacks laid the groundwork for the later transformative successes.
Lobbying the Lobbyists
Originally invented for aviation pursuits, the first factory seat restraint option in American automobiles was offered by Nash in 1949. Buyers did not enjoy using these early seat belts. Customers believed they were unsafe and uncomfortable.
Many consumers believed it was better to be ejected from a vehicle than remain in the passenger cabin. Studies done by Nash and Ford showed customers removed seat belts from vehicles in droves. As a result, other manufacturers, namely General Motors, considered the endeavor to be a waste of time and money.
Even at the Ad Council, there were concern that a seat belt campaign would prove to be as unpopular as seat belts themselves. As Leo Burnett, one of the directors of the Ad Council, stated in retrospect, “There were reservations as to how the [Ad] Council should proceed in this matter.” Since 1943, the Ad Council and several partner organizations had sponsored a campaign dedicated to accident prevention. In fact, sole purpose was to prevent accidents from occurring, not how to minimize injuries in the event of an accident (for more information on the early history of the campaign, please click this link). not merely want to add seat belts to the existing campaign–it wanted to devote all focus to seat belts.
This requested shift in focus raised several questions for the members of the Campaign Review Committee. While new car buyers would be able to take advantage of the hardware in their cars, what about those with pre-1962 model year vehicles? Would they be able to safely and economically retrofit seat belts in their vehicles? Otherwise, how much of an impact would a seat belt campaign have? Did it make sense to dedicate all of the Ad Council’s resources to a project with a limited target audience at the expense of the masses? Additionally, committee members were wary of the dissipation of gains made by the Highway Safety campaign’s emphasis on the enforcement of traffic laws. The Ad Council respected the desires of their partner, NSC, but did not believe that the time was right for such a change in the safety campaign’s messages.
On April 12, 1961, then-Executive Vice President of the National Safety Council General George C. Stewart spoke to the Ad Council Campaigns Review subcommittee to encourage this shift. He expressed appreciation for the Ad Council’s service and dedication to automotive safety. He stated NSC’s long-standing recommendation of the usage of seat belts and how their persistence was starting to bear fruit with automakers. Movers and shakers in Detroit had acquiesced to National Safety Council’s desires. Beginning with 1962 model year vehicles, all cars manufactured in America would come standard with seat belt latching points. That work would go to waste, however, if people were not aware of the benefits of seat belts. General Stewart, and by extension the National Safety Council, strongly believed in the power of advertising to create the necessary awareness. In the eyes of the National Safety Council, this was not something that could wait. Seat belts demanded the Traffic Safety campaign’s full attention. He ended his stump speech by saying that the National Safety Council would attempt to work out another theme with the Ad Council if seat belt safety was not implemented as they wished.
Once General Stewart ended his talk, members of the Campaign Review Committee began to express their concerns about such a quick overhaul of a long-standing campaign. After further discussion, the committee unanimously passed the following motion: “while the sole strategy of had been to prevent accidents, the emphasis should be broadened to save[ing] lives altogether. The Ad Council would continue to preach safe and legal driving habits while also encouraging seat belt usage to reduce the harm inflicted in the event of an accident.”
That being said, the committee still was concerned about potentially upsetting automotive manufacturing sponsors if the Ad Council acted without forewarning. The Board of Directors desired proof that such a move would not catch automakers off guard. The Council relied on the support of corporate partners to donate space and funds for programming; they were not in a position to directly influence their benefactors. With enough data and advertising, however, they could nudge those who did hold sway over automakers to act—the customer. Convince the public that seat belts were necessary, and hesitant automakers would be forced to offer them. If seat belts were readily available, reasonably priced, and relatively easy to install, what excuse would remain to automakers for not installing them? The NSC produced a veritable trove of studies, graphs, and (critically) advertising material for this revamp in time for the monthly Board of Directors which approved the proposal and promptly scheduled a joint press conference.
On June 27th, 1961, the Ad Council, National Safety Council, and the American Medical Association, alongside news outlets, gathered to announce a revamping of the Stop Accidents campaign. Ad Council President Theodore Repplier explained the necessity of this change with the following statement:
“When we started the Stop Accidents Campaign in 1945, the death rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled was 11.3. The rate last year was 5.3. While the National Safety Council has been most generous in citing the value of this campaign in helping to bring about this reduction, they are not satisfied and we are not satisfied as long as there are 38,000 people killed and almost one and a half million seriously injured in on our streets and highways.”
Although the Ad Council had done much to encourage safe driving habits while discouraging risky behaviors, traffic incidents are a fact of life as long as the human element remains a factor. As cars became bigger, faster and heavier, more needed to be done to protect passengers from their chrome-plated missiles. A driver could do everything right from taking precautions during inclement weather and only driving when in a condition to do so safely, but still be mangled by another driver’s mistakes.
Bumps in the Road
Divisions spread within the Safety Taskforce. The campaign languished in limbo, as some members did not want to dedicate Ad Council resources to a campaign that did not have the endorsement of its sponsoring agency. These members proposed a one to two year “holiday” on the campaign, while others, recognizing the importance of the campaign, pushed for its renewal. Even Howard Pyle expressed reservations on the continuance of the partnership after the campaign’s December 31st, 1964 expiration date.
Less than two months from deadline, Pyle wrote a letter expressing a change of heart. The National Safety Council definitely requested continuance if the campaign. The Ad Council agreed to extend the campaign for one year, contingent upon two conditions: that the NSC and Ad Council mutually agree upon a copy theme that the campaign group feels would be effective and the signing of an agreement upon communication policies and procedures to prevent tensions from rising in the future.
With these kinks ironed out the Seat Belt campaign soldiered on, outliving other campaigns, presidential administrations and even members of the Council’s Board of Directors. Finally, thirty years after its inception, the Stop Accidents/Seat Belt Safety campaign died a quiet death in 1974. With the end of the campaign, seat belt awareness and promotion would languish for an entire decade. By the time seat belt safety was resurrected in the 1980s, any noticeable gains made by the Council’s push had been eliminated. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, only 15 percent of Americans reported using seat belts while driving. For perspective, 1 out of every 7 ford buyers paid for the privilege of having seat belts in 1956.
Where Did It Go Wrong?
In the words of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “the body politic, as well as the human body, begins to die as soon as it is born, and carries in itself the causes of its destruction.” The first iteration of the seat belt safety campaign died as a result of a flaw present at its creation–not enough people responsible for the campaign believed in it. The Council has always been at its most influential when selling ideas that they fully supported. Seat Belt Safety was born under a haze of apprehension and doubt. For once, it was the Council that needed to be sold on an idea.
They worried about losing hard-fought ground in automotive safety to promote a new and unpopular device. The seat belts in cars at the time were not the modern three-point harness with pretensioners, but lap belts akin to those used in school buses today. While these seat belts did save lives, people found these early models to be clunky and uncomfortable. It would have been an uphill battle with the full support of the Ad Council. Without it, making the campaign a success would have been Mission: Impossible.
By the time the National Safety Council pulled its funding from the campaign, its strongest supporters at the Council were no longer there to promote it. Leo Burnett passed away in 1971. H.T. Rowe died three months after the campaign was canceled. Theodore Repplier retired from the Council in 1966 and was in declining health. The Council searched for new sponsors for the campaign but came up empty-handed. Overloaded with campaign requests and underfunded to support it alone, the Ad Council had no other choice. Stop Accidents had effectively been orphaned, with no one stepping up to adopt the poor child.
The robustness of the NSC’s proposal also might have been its undoing. The campaign was the National Safety Council’s brainchild with the Ad Council taking a back seat. As then-President of the Ad Council Theodore Repplier said, it was in “full support” of the messaging produced by the NSC. The shift in emphasis to seat belt safety also marked an unofficial transfer of power from H.T. Rowe to Howard Pyle, the President of the NSC. Traditionally, it was the volunteer coordinator who would issue a letter with each press kit, outlining the goals of that season’s advertisement. After 1963, Governor Pyle would be the one to address the ad representatives. While Rowe was an Ad Man who cut his teeth at IBM, Pyle’s background was in politics and broadcasting. Pyle preferred facts and figures to hokey messaging, hoping that logic would be enough. It was not. The campaigns that stick with us long after they end have soul. They make us laugh; they make us cry. We connected with Vince and Larry on a level that could never be reached with raw data. No man understood the value of the “soft sell” better than Leo Burnett. It shouldn’t be a surprise that it was the agency he founded that showed us “you could learn a lot from a dummy.”
Cellulose Nitrate film was first invented in 1887, patented in 1889, and hit the public market in 1902. With it came a paradigm shift in the realm of publicly accessible cinematography. Nitrate film was flexible, light, and could be strung together in long rolls allowing for multiple photos to be taken in a row. It required fewer solvents and film preparation techniques than glass plate film and could be prepared in a fraction of the time. By lowering the entry point to casual photography, this invention brought forward waves of new photographers ready to capture their world on film. With them came a wider variety of subjects matters to be photographed
By the turn of the century, cellulose nitrate films were practically the bread and butter of the Eastman Kodak corporation; they were industrially mass-produced, and this newly efficient system of film production brought filmography to the masses. In the first third of the 20th century, it really seemed as if nitrates were the future of photography!
However, nitrate film did come with one insignificant, teeny tiny, itsy bitsy, almost imperceptible downside: it sometimes explodes. Specifically its image content deteriorated quickly, and deteriorated nitrate film was prone to spontaneously combust and explode. The only effective way to prevent these explosions, like what happened to the 1937 Fox Vault, is to freeze the nitrate film at sub-zero temperatures. Most storage facilities for nitrate film, like that of the Chicago History Museum, are massive freezers that keep nitrate film meant prevent instant combustion.
The Chicago History Museum alone has reportedly 35,000 films on site and thus the protection of those films before they are digitized is essential. At the University of Illinois Archives–with our lack of space for a multi-million-dollar refrigeration unit–have opted to have our nitrate films digitized before their potential explosion dates. We are left today with thousands of photos in pure digital form, and we feel committed to giving them a name and a retelling story that the physical films once held.
The Nitrate Digitization Project, as we’ve come to call it, is part passion project and part dedication to the history contained here at the University Archives. So many of these films are from members of the community whose legacy is stored in thousands of JP_2 files online. Namely, over 500 of the files digitized were by just one guy! A Champaign-Urbana resident and photographer, Bernard Strauch documented so many early images of buildings on campus that exist today. Some of the images in the project were orchestrated and planned out. Strauch often took class reunion photos for some of the earliest graduating classes.
Where Strauch’s work truly shines is in his series of on-the-ground photos that capture a moment and were wholly unprompted. Whether it’s rushing to be on scene to see a derailed train just a day after the news broke, photographing all angles of a burned down church at what appears to be 6 in the morning, or even snagging photos of WWI general visiting campus, Strauch always made his mark with his images. So, we are seeking to do justice to Strauch’s work, and all those captured within the nitrate files, by reconstructing and retelling the stories captured almost a century ago. So, we hope to post bi-weekly ‘Tales from the Nitrate Negatives” as we can and work to dissect a world of the past both very alike, yet very alien from our own.