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Heinz von Foerster

Heinz von Foerster, courtesy of the University of Illinois Archives

Born in Vienna, émigré physicist Heinz von Foerster (1911-2002) is considered to be one of the pioneers of cybernetics, especially for his role in establishing second-order cybernetics. Von Foerster’s family and social network in Vienna, including family friend Ludwig Wittgenstein, had a profound influence on his development. After receiving a degree in physics from the Viennese Technical University (Technische Hochschule) in 1935, von Foerster earned a doctorate in physics from the University of Breslau in 1944. In 1948, he published “Das Gedächtnis. Eine quantenphysikalische Untersuchung” (“Memory. A Quantum-physical Investigation”); Warren McCulloch, chair of the Macy Conferences, read von Foerster’s article, and in 1949 invited him to attend the meetings to discuss his ideas on the mechanisms of memory (and later helped von Foerster secure a position in the Electrical Engineering Department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign). Of the Macy Conferences, von Foerster wrote, “I met those people who laid the conceptual foundation for comprehending the behavior of the ‘really’ complex systems, the teleological systems, and the self-organizing systems.”

Heinz von Foerster continued to attend many of the Macy Conferences, and was the participant to suggest, after Wiener’s 1948 publication, that “cybernetics” be adopted as the theme of the meetings. Throughout his life, he continued to correspond with many of the colleagues he had met at the conferences, including Warren McCulloch, W. Ross Ashby, and Margaret Mead. After receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1956, von Foerster spent a sabbatical studying neurophysiology with McCulloch and Arturo Rosenblueth. Soon after he returned to the University of Illinois, he established the Biological Computer Laboratory (BCL) in 1958 as a center for the study of the “computational principles in living organisms.” In 1960, Ashby accepted an appointment as a Professor of Electrical Engineering and Biophysics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (1960-1970) and also helped steer the direction of the BCL. Over the next two decades, the BCL “became a major centre of innovation for cybernetics and cognitive science” and the study of second-order cybernetics (Müller and Müller, 2007). Like the Macy Conferences, it fostered an inter/transdisciplinary research space that drew a variety of scholars, including frequent visitors Margaret Mead, Francisco Varela, and Humberto Maturana. In addition, the BCL organized conferences, produced publications, and encouraged discussion around the ideas of McCulloch and Walter Pitts, the emerging concept of “bionics,” linguistics, speech, and cognitive science, and Maturana’s notion of autopoiesis.

The University of Illinois Archives curates the Heinz von Foerster Papers and the Biological Computer Laboratory Publications, which document the evolution of cybernetics in the 20th century, particularly second-order cybernetics. A large portion of von Foerster’s papers consist of correspondence files, including incoming and outgoing letters between von Foerster and McCulloch, Ashby, Wiener, Margaret Mead, Gordon Pask, and others involved in cybernetics.

A portion of the Heinz von Foerster Papers and the Biological Computer Laboratory Publications were digitized as a part of this project.