Biological Computer Laboratory

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The Biological Computer Laboratory (BCL) was a research institute of the Department of Electrical Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It was founded on 1 January 1958 by the then Professor of Electrical Engineering Heinz von Foerster. He was head of the BCL until his retirement.

The focus of research at the BCL was systems theory and specifically the area of self-organizing systems, bionics, and bio-inspired computing; that is, analyzing, formalizing, and implementing biological process using computers. The BCL was inspired by the ideas of Warren McCulloch and the Macy Conferences, as well as many other thinkers in the field of cybernetics.

In the first decade of its existence, the BCL was primarily a non-teaching research lab. Although students could work at the BCL, they were not trained.

Until 1965, many researchers had a visiting professorship at the BCL: W. William Ainsworth (England), Alex Andrew (England), W. Ross Ashby (England), Gordon Pask (England), Gotthard Günther (USA, Germany), Dan Cohen (Israel), Lars Löfgren (Sweden), Humberto Maturana (Chile), Francisco Varela (Chile), Ernst von Glasersfeld (Germany), Stafford Beer (England), John C. Lilly (USA). Ashby (since 1961) and Günther (1967) received regular professors, and Löfgren Pask remained even after her visiting professorship in constant contact with the BCL.

The BCL was financed primarily by grants. Partly this came from military organizations such as U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy which, in the 1950s and 60s, possessed large budgets for basic research. Non-military donors included Department of Health, Education and Welfare, Public Health Service, National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, New York, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Electronics Research Center, Boston, Massachusetts Office of Education, Bureau of Research, Washington, DC and Point, San Francisco, California. With the beginning of the 1970s, military research funding became limited to projects that provided militarily useful results, and Heinz von Foerster was unable to identify adequate sponsors. In 1974, the BCL was closed due to lack of research funds.


  • Albert Mueller, A brief history of the BCL. In: Austrian Journal of History. 11 (1), 2000, pp. 9–30.
  • Bernard Scott, Heinz von Foerster obituary, The Independent, 25 October 2002.
  • Heinz von Foerster, Understanding understanding: conversations on epistemology and ethics, Springer, 2002.


Albert Muller, Karl Muller (eds), An Unfinished Revolution?: Heinz von Foerster and the Biological Computer Laboratory / BCL 1958–1976, Edition Echoraum, 2007.

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