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W. Ross Ashby

W. Ross Ashby, courtesy of the British Library. Copyright: © Estate of W. Ross Ashby, www.rossashby.info

William Ross Ashby (1903-1972) was a pioneer in cybernetics and systems theory and a key figure in the development of cybernetics in postwar Britain. Ashby studied medicine at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London and in 1928 began keeping a journal of thoughts and observations—exploring the “the theory of organisation as applied to the nervous system”—as a means of relaxation amid his everyday work. From 1930 to 1959 he worked at a number of institutions, including the Royal Army Medical Corps (1945-1947), as a clinical psychiatrist and research pathologist. Working in his spare time as a research biochemist, he further developed ideas that influenced cybernetics. In 1946 he recorded an idea in his journal for an “isomorphism making machine” which was eventually realized with the construction and successful testing, in March 1948, of the homeostat, an electro-mechanical machine capable of adaptive behaviour and the first mechanical demonstration of “ultrastability.”

In early 1952, at the invitation of Warren McCulloch, Ashby attended the 9th Macy Conference where, as well as demonstrating the homeostat, he met with other cyberneticians including Norbert Wiener, Harry Pitts, and Claude Shannon. Ashby was a founding member of the Ratio Club (1949-1958), a Cambridge-based interdisciplinary group of researchers interested in cybernetics whose members included Alan Turing. Ashby wrote two influential books, Design for a Brain (1952) and An Introduction to Cybernetics (1956), the latter introducing “the Law of Requisite Variety” and influencing the work of Roger Conant and Stafford Beer. In 1960 and at the instigation of Heinz von Foerster, Ashby was offered a faculty position in the Departments of Biophysics and Electrical Engineering, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He remained there until his retirement in 1970.

The British Library holds the papers of W. Ross Ashby. The centerpiece of this archive is a remarkable series of 25 notebooks in which Ashby recorded his thoughts and observations over a period of 44 years from 1928 until 1972. A unique analytical record of scientific and creative endeavour, they provide a fascinating insight into his entire working life in cybernetics including the genesis of the homeostat, his work on “ultrastability” and the “Law of Requisite Variety.” In addition there are index cards, notes, offprints and lecture slides and a small but important collection of correspondence with individuals such as Norbert Weiner and Warren McCulloch along with a much-celebrated letter from Alan Turing. The Ashby papers have been arranged and described and selectively digitized.

A portion of the W. Ross Ashby Papers have been digitized for this project.