Heinz von Foerster and the Biological Computer Laboratory: A Cybernetics Odyssey

Heinz von Foerster exits the Biological Computer Laboratory office in the Electrical Engineering Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois, found in record series 39/1/11, box 94.
Heinz von Foerster exits the Biological Computer Laboratory office in the Electrical Engineering Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois, found in record series 39/1/11, box 94.

What do the study of the computational principles in living organisms, the end of the world, and a counterculture student-produced guide to the university all have in common? These subjects are all documented in the personal papers of electrical engineering professor Heinz von Foerster (1911-2002), whose work and laboratory at the University of Illinois transformed a generation of scientists, engineers, and humanists and the interdisciplinary approaches they employed to answer questions about behavior. “Heinz von Foerster and the Biological Computer Laboratory: A Cybernetics Odyssey”–a new exhibit in the University Archives, room 146–contains selections from the Heinz von Foerster Papers, the Biological Computer Laboratory Publications, and the Biological Computer Laboratory Contract and Conference File, which highlight the genesis and evolution of the Biological Computer Laboratory (BCL) as well as von Foerster’s cybernetics research and role as an educator.

Photograph of Heinz Von Foerster (1911-2002) walking the streets of Munich, Germany, ca. 1940, found in record series 11/6/26, box 116.
Photograph of Heinz Von Foerster (1911-2002) walking the streets of Munich, Germany, ca. 1940, found in record series 11/6/26, box 116.

The story of Heinz von Foerster and the BCL can arguably be traced to a series of conferences held (mostly) in New York City between 1946 and 1953. Hosted by the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation, the Macy Conferences on “Circular Causal and Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems,” brought together a vast array of scholars from different disciplines, including electrical engineers, mathematicians, computer scientists, neurophysiologists, and anthropologists.[1] Among the participants–which included John Von Neumann, Claude Shannon, W. Grey Walter, Margaret Mead, and Gregory Bateson, among many others–was a Viennese-born physicist named Heinz von Foerster, who, following his publication of Das Gedächtnis. Eine quantenphysikalische Untersuchung in 1948, joined the meetings to present on his theory of memory. The same year that von Foerster published Das Gedächtnis, MIT mathematician and Macy Conference participant Norbert Wiener published Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, on the science of communication and control. Following the publication of Wiener’s book, the participants adopted the term “cybernetics” for the conferences, which von Foerster later reflected was “the most important conceptual tool that can cope with the problems of a troubled today.”[2]

Heinz von Foerster is considered to be one of the pioneers of cybernetics, especially for his role in establishing “second-order cybernetics.” After receiving a degree in physics from the Viennese Technical University (Technische Hochschule) in 1935, he earned a doctorate in physics from the University of Breslau in 1944. Von Foerster came to the University of Illinois in 1949 initially as director of the Electron Tube Research Laboratory in the Department of Electrical Engineering. Between 1956-1957, von Foerster spent a sabbatical studying neurophysiology after receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship. Shortly after, he established the Biological Computer Laboratory in 1958 as a center for the study of the “computational principles in living organisms.” [3]

BCL Notice on Cognitive Memory, 1967, found in record series 11/6/17, box 8.
BCL Notice on Cognitive Memory, 1967, found in record series 11/6/17, box 8.

Over nearly two decades the BCL created a unique interdisciplinary research space for cybernetics, drawing as diverse a group of scholars as the Macy Conferences, including anthropologist Margaret Mead and biologist Humberto Maturana. The BCL also organized conferences and was know for its prolific production of publications on cybernetics and cognitive science topics.

Cover of "Doomsday," found in record series 11/6/26, box 63.
Cover of “Doomsday,” found in record series 11/6/26, box 63.

The items in this exhibit–including correspondence, photographs, news clippings, examples of the BCL publications, and von Foerster’s research notes–provide a glimpse into the unique context of the BCL and the dynamic intellect of Heinz von Foerster. Specifically, these materials relate to von Foerster’s participation in the Macy Conferences, the activities of the BCL, and his work on cognitive memory and computation. The exhibit also highlights materials that document his writing of (and reactions to) his notorious article “Doomsday,” which came out of his research on population studies; von Foerster and his colleagues concluded that the world would officially end on November 13, 2026, when the world would become so overpopulated that life would be unsustainable. [4] Additional materials illustrate von Foerster’s role as an educator and the engagement of students in cybernetics ideas, including the student-produced counterculture publication The Whole University Catalog (1969) and Metagames (1972), which explored concepts of cognition and human cooperation through the creation of experimental games.

Intrigued? Visit room 146 (University Archives) in the Main Library to find out more! The exhibit runs from December 2, 2016 through January 31, 2017.

Exhibit case documenting the activity of the BCL.
Exhibit case documenting the activity of the BCL.

 

[1] For an example list of participants, see Transactions of the Seventh-Ninth Conference, Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation: New York, 1950-53, Box 94, Record Series 11/6/26, Heinz von Foerster Papers, University of Illinois Archives.

[2] Heinz von Foerster to Margaret Wiener, July 10, 1986, Box 34, Record Series 11/6/26, Heinz von Foerster Papers, University of Illinois Archives.

[3] Heinz von Foerster, “Physics and Anthropology,” BCL Publication No. 111, Urbana, IL (1964): 330, Record Series 11/6/834, Biological Computer Laboratory Publications, University of Illinois Archives.

[4] Heinz von Foerster, Patricia M. Mora, and Lawrence M. Amiot, “Doomsday,” BCL Publication 35, 57, 59, 85, Box 63, Record Series 11/6/26, Heinz von Foerster Papers, University of Illinois Archives.

Found in the Archives: The Watson Lewis Papers

Watson Lewis
Watson Lewis

The University Archives has a new online exhibit featuring the papers of Watson F. Lewis, who signed up to be an international secretary for the YMCA at the end of World War I. The papers were donated by Marjorie L. Lewis, Watson Lewis’s daughter, who earned her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University. These papers include letters from Lewis to his wife describing his travels and work in Russia and China between 1918 and 1921, as well as souvenirs from his travels, books, YMCA dispatches, and many photographs.

The new exhibit introduces this collection, particularly the letters, which are a rare example of a first-person account in English about this area of the world in the early 20th century.

Enter the exhibit.

 

ARLIS/NA and VRA: Working Together to Visualize the Future

1As the Art Libraries Society of North America (ARLIS/NA) and the Visual Resources Association (VRA) begin their third-ever joint conference, we look back at the 12th Summer Educational Institute for Visual Resources and Image Management (SEI), co-sponsored by ARLIS/NA and the VRA Foundation, which took place June 9-12, 2015, on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus. It provided the opportunity to highlight some of the holdings of the ARLIS/NA Archives, which are held by the University of Illinois Archives.

Missed the live exhibit?  See it online here!

Enter the exhibit.

 

National Accessibility Pioneers: Timothy Nugent and the Division of Rehabilitation Education Services

Did you know that the rate of graduation of students with disabilities registered in DRES is between 87% and 91%? That is higher than the average graduation rate on campus, which has been around 85% and 88%! Also, are you aware that our campus has been ranked #1 for several years as the most accessible campus for students with disabilities? Did you know that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was the very first institution to provide full access to all university services, curricula and facilities? One more question. Have you heard of the NWBA (National Wheelchair Basketball Association)?

You are probably guessing what this is all about. Dr. Timothy Nugent, first director of the University of Illinois’ Disability Resources & Educational Services (DRES), and pioneer for disability advocacy and equity, left a legacy that continues to shape the development of accessibility design and equity policies for individuals with disabilities.

Among other important contributions, Nugent pioneered research on architectural barriers, accessibility standards, transportation, and recreation for individuals with disabilities. Nugent was involved in supporting the activities and the administration of DRES and the fraternity Delta Sigma Omicron, a rehabilitation service fraternity whose members originally were students with disabilities on the University of Illinois campus. In addition to this work, he also founded the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (1948), collaborated closely with organizations as American National Standards Institute (1959-92) and was pioneer in developing accessibility-friendly public transportation.

At the University Archives, you will find 21 Record Series related with the history and development of the DRES center, which include: Timothy J. Nugent Papers, 1939-2007 (Series 16/6/20); the DRES Subject file, Photographic File and Scrapbooks; the Fraternity Delta Sigma Omicron records; and several records related to the Wheel Chair Basketball team and Wheelchair Athletics. Materials in these collections consist of correspondence, photographs, booklets, video recordings, audio recordings, and committee minutes. Some materials include contents accessible on-line. See here all disability-related Record Series available at the Archives.

To honor Timothy Nugent, who recently passed away on Wednesday, November 11 2015, the University Archives is sharing an exhibit highlighting some of DRES’ main achievements. Enter the exhibit here.

 

Design Buildings to Permit their use by the Physically Handicapped. Fall 1960. Found in Series 16/6/1, Box 4
Design Buildings to Permit their use by the Physically Handicapped. Fall 1960. Found in Series 16/6/1, Box 4

Champaign County On Film

Champaign County On Film, the second event in the Town & Gown Speaker Series, will be held in the Lewis Auditorium at Urbana Free Library, Wednesday, October 15, at 7pm. The Champaign County Historical Archives and the Student Life & Culture Archives will present an evening devoted to the changes of Champaign County from the 1920s through the twenty-first century as captured by the film lens. Continue reading “Champaign County On Film”

School of Military Aeronautics

The last of four posts written for “WWI and Champaign County” of the Town & Gown Speaker Series, a collaboration between the Student Life & Culture Archives and the Champaign County Historical Archives.

Research for this post contributed by Maggie Cornelius.

Besides ROTC and SATC, the Department of War instituted another military training program at the University of Illinois during World War I. The School of Military Aeronautics (SMA) was not a permanent addition to the University, but its activities preoccupied the campus during the latter years of the Great War.

School of Military Aeronautics instructors, fall 1917. In March 1917, the Daily Illini reported on this development: “The aviation section of the military department of the United States has become active during the present crisis and is desirous of interested students at all the universities in aviation.”[1] To meet the nation’s need for pilots in time of war, the federal government commissioned six U.S. universities to open aviation schools. Illinois was the first American university to offer its facilities and resources to the government to aid the war effort.[2] Continue reading “School of Military Aeronautics”

Student Military Training and the Great War

The third of four posts written for “WWI and Champaign County” of the Town & Gown Speaker Series, a collaboration between the Student Life & Culture Archives and the Champaign County Historical Archives.

Research for this post contributed by Maggie Cornelius.

America’s entry into World War I required the mobilization of the country’s brightest minds and ablest bodies for military training and leadership. The War Department looked to American universities to recruit capable men for its military departments. These recruitment efforts prompted the establishment of two prominent military organizations at the University of Illinois, both of which served as the foundation for the current Illini Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program. Cadet George Wellington Rider, 1915

Prior to ROTC, the 1862 Morrill Act obligated land-grant universities to instruct its male students in “military tactics.”[1] Anticipating the American entrance into the war, the National Defense Act of 1916 established the ROTC as part of its reorganization of the American military. Illinois created its ROTC chapter in 1917 and fundamentally changed how the University fulfilled its Morrill Act obligation.  ROTC’s primary purpose was to train and enroll men into the Reserved Officers’ Corps who were qualified to be “captains or lieutenants of volunteer organizations in times of war.”[2] In its early days, ROTC was divided into seven units: medical corps, signal corps, engineers, cavalry, field artillery, coast artillery, and infantry.[3] Continue reading “Student Military Training and the Great War”

The Women Behind the Men Behind the Guns

The second of four posts written for “WWI and Champaign County” of the Town & Gown Speaker Series, a collaboration between the Student Life & Culture Archives and the Champaign County Historical Archives.

Research for this post contributed by Maggie Cornelius.

The United States government asked Americans to knit socks, sweaters, and other garments for soldiers during World War I. Most of this knitting was produced by volunteers working under the auspices of the American Red Cross. Illini women, like many women during the war, devoted their free time and money to contribute necessities and luxuries to the war effort. The former provided subsistence and the latter provided morale. Continue reading “The Women Behind the Men Behind the Guns”

Remembering Dora-Mittelbau

This year marks the 70th Anniversary of the Allied Invasion of Normandy. Memorial services for the war’s causalities are taking place around the world. These services commemorate the dead and also attest to the scope and ferocity of the Second World War. Those who liberated concentration camps felt it was of utmost importance to ensure that this history was kept alive.

In the early morning of April 11th 1945, the Third Armored Division, specifically Task Force Welborn from the north and Task Force Loveday from the south, led the capture of what they thought was a prisoner-of-war camp.[1] After a few light skirmishes the nearby town of Nordhausen (in Northern-Central Germany) was secured. Once Nordhausen was seized 3AD units investigated rumors of a prisoner camp on the outskirts of the town. First person accounts note the bewilderment and nausea that the soldiers experienced upon finding the concentration camp. James D. Mathews recounted his own experiences: Continue reading “Remembering Dora-Mittelbau”

Illini Ambulance Volunteers, 1917

One of four posts written for “WWI and Champaign County” of the Town & Gown Speaker Series, a collaboration between the Student Life & Culture Archives and the Champaign County Historical Archives.

Research for this post contributed by Maggie Cornelius.

University of Illinois students found multiple ways to aid the Allies in Europe prior to the U.S. entry in April of 1917. Among the students who traveled to war zones was a committee of volunteer ambulance drivers. On May 15, 1917, over twenty Illini men set sail for France to help deliver the wounded from the front to military hospitals.[1] The chairman of this Ambulance Committee was Christian “Chris” Gross. An agriculture student and a member of the Daily Illini editorial board, Sigma Delta Chi, Alpha Gamma Rho, and Psi Upsilon,[2] Gross organized and sent volunteer ambulance drivers to Europe for a six-month stint. Continue reading “Illini Ambulance Volunteers, 1917”