Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine

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Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine was written by Norbert Wiener and published in 1948.[1] It is the first public usage of the term "cybernetics" to refer to self-regulating mechanisms. The book laid the theoretical foundation for servomechanisms (whether electrical, mechanical or hydraulic), automatic navigation, analog computing, and reliable communications.

A second addition with minor changes and two additional chapters was published in 1961.


The book aroused a considerable amount of public discussion and comment at the time of publication, unusual for a predominantly technical subject.

"[A] beautifully written book, lucid, direct, and, despite its complexity, as readable by the layman as the trained scientist, if the former is willing to forego attempts to understand mathematical formulas."[2]
"One of the most influential books of the twentieth century, Cybernetics has been acclaimed as one of the 'seminal works' comparable in ultimate importance to Galileo or Malthus or Rousseau or Mill."[3][full citation needed]
"Its scope and implications are breathtaking, and leaves the reviewer with the conviction that it is a major contribution to contemporary thought."[4]
"Cybernetics... is worthwhile for its historical value alone. But it does much more by inspiring the contemporary roboticist to think broadly and be open to innovative applications."[5]

Table of contents[edit]


1. Newtonian and Bergsonian Time

2. Groups and Statistical Mechanics

3. Time Series, Information, and Communication

4. Feedback and Oscillation

5. Computing Machines and the Nervous System

6. Gestalt and Universals

7. Cybernetics and Psychopathology

8. Information, Language, and Society

Supplementary chapters in the second edition[edit]

9. On Learning and Self-Reproducing Machines

10. Brain Waves and Self-Organising Systems



Wiener recounts that the origin of the ideas in this book is a ten-year long series of meetings at the Harvard Medical School where medical scientists and physicians discussed scientific method with mathematicians, physicists and engineers. He details the interdisciplinary nature of his approach and refers to his work with Vannevar Bush and his differential analyzer (a primitive analog computer), as well as his early thoughts on the features and design principles of future digital calculating machines.

Newtonian and Bergsonian Time[edit]

The theme of this chapter is an exploration of the contrast between time-reversible processes governed by Newtonian mechanics and time-irreversible processes in accordance with the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In the opening section he distinguishes the predictable nature of astronomy from the challenges posed in meteorology, anticipating future developments in Chaos theory.

Groups and Statistical Mechanics[edit]

This chapter opens with a review of the - entirely independent and apparently unrelated - work of two scientists in the early 20th century: Willard Gibbs and Henri Lebesgue. Gibbs was a physicist working on a statistical approach to Newtonian dynamics, and Lebesgue was a pure mathematician working on the theory of trigonometric series. Wiener suggests that the questions asked by Gibbs find their answer in the work of Gibbs. The concept of entropy in statistical mechanics is developed, and its relationship to the way the concept is used in thermodynamics. By an analysis of the thought experiment Maxwell's demon, he relates the concept of entropy to that of information.

Time Series, Information, and Communication[edit]

This is one of the more mathematically intensive chapters in the book. It deals with the transmission or recording of a varying analog signal as a sequence of numerical samples, and lays much of the groundwork for the development of digital audio and remote measurement over the past six decades. It also examines the relationship between bandwidth, noise, and information capacity, as developed by Wiener in collaboration with Claude Shannon.

Feedback and Oscillation[edit]

This chapter lays down the foundations for the mathematical treatment of negative feedback in automated control systems. The opening passage illustrates the effect of faulty feedback mechanisms by the example of patients suffering from various forms of ataxia. He then discusses railway signalling, the operation of a thermostat, and a steam engine centrifugal governor. The rest of the chapter is mostly taken up with the development of a mathematical formulation of the operation of the principles underlying all of these processes. More complex systems are then discussed such as automated navigation, and the control of non-linear situations such as steering on an icy road. He concludes with a reference to the homeostatic processes in living organisms.


  1. ^ Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Paris, (Hermann & Cie) & Camb. Mass. (MIT Press) ISBN 978-0-262-73009-9; 1948, 2nd revised ed. 1961.
  2. ^ Thurston, John B. "Review: Cybernetics by Norbert Weiner". The Saturday Review of Literature: April 23, 1949. Retrieved 2014-09-03. 
  3. ^ John R.Platt, The New York Times
  4. ^ Russell L. Ackoff. Book Review: Cybernetics. Philosophy of Science 22 (1):68- (1955)
  5. ^ Simpkins, C.A; Simpkins, A.M. (June 2012). "On The Shelf". Robotics & Automation Magazine, IEEE 19 (2): 94–95. doi:10.1109/MRA.2012.2192815.