During the first years of the twentieth century rumors started going around the Harvard campus about the extraordinarily gifted child of the university’s professor of Slavic languages and literature, Leo Wiener. The Wieners’ son Norbert had learned the alphabet by the age of 18 months. At three years of age he read books from his father’s library and at five he could recite Greek and Latin classics by heart. Soon he delved into chemistry, mathematics, physics and biology, and enrolled at Tufts College when he was only eleven, becoming the youngest college student in US history.

Harvard doctor at eighteen

On October 7th 1906, The World Magazine published an extensive article about the talented Norbert. The magazine interviewed the boy and also his parents, who stated reassuringly that they doing everything to give the boy as normal a childhood as possible. However, it was clear that without his parents’ unyielding support the boy could never have been as successful.

Aside from literature and philosophy, the young scholar always had a lively interest in science. He was influenced in particular by his father’s friend, the physiologist Walter Cannon, who is, among other things, famous for introducing the term homeostasis into biology. Norbert enjoyed exploring Cannon’s Harvard laboratory and it is most likely that this acquaintance led to his decision to become a scientist rather than a philosopher.

After graduating, he first studied zoology at Harvard, then philosophy at Cornell and at the age of eighteen was awarded a doctorate for a dissertation on mathematical logic at Harvard University. In the following years he visited Europe and spent some time studying under Bertrand Russell and G.H. Hardy at Cambridge, and under David Hilbert at the University of Göttingen. After the First World War he secured a position as a lecturer at MIT where he remained for the rest of his career.

According to a family legend, one of the ancestors of the Wiener family was the Jewish philosopher and physician Moses Maimonides who was himself, like Norbert, a child prodigy. Maimonides’ descendants are believed to have lived in Poland from where the Wiener family originated, but the sources supporting this claim were lost in a fire, so the story is no more than a story, as Norbert confirmed in his writings.

Attempts to automate air defense

At the beginning of the Second World War, Wiener sent letters to the President’s science advisor outlining in detail what was in effect a prototype of the modern computer. At that time, however, no attempt was made to make his idea a reality. When he learned about the horrific consequences of the German bombing of England he decided instead to put all efforts into finding a way of coordinating air defense as effectively as possible.

Military mathematicians were able to calculate very precisely how to direct artillery to hit a distant target. The problem with hitting an aircraft, however, was the speed at which the target moved. That is why Wiener tried to include all available data on the direction and speed of an aircraft in his calculations, thus improving the accuracy of anti-aircraft artillery. However, as these calculations were quite complex and took much time to make, he searched for a way of automating this process.

The main addition Wiener made to his model of “intelligent” air defense was radar, a new technology which had just been developed by the English, so that his calculating device could continuously receive accurate data on the position of an individual aircraft. His idea was reviewed by a special commission responsible for coordinating scientific work in wartime. The commission approved the proposal and directed that experimental construction should begin. The chief project engineer was a young Julian Bigelow, with whom Wiener immediately hit it off. First they approached the problem of shooting at airplanes theoretically, using complex differential equations, and then they visited several military bases where they could observe the flying capacities of military aircraft first-hand.

At first it seemed that predicting the positions of airplanes would be something quite impossible as pilots were able to maneuver them with great skill and avoid fire from the ground very successfully. However, their freedom in taking evasive action was limited by the great speed at which they flew. Airmen had to be careful not to accelerate too much when turning. With this in mind Wiener and Bigelow were able to determine quite accurately the range of positions through which an airplane could move.

The birth of cybernetics

The deeper Wiener delved into the problem of coordinating air defense, the more he believed he was on the path to discovering a universal logic that could in many cases also be found in nature. He started to develop ideas about feedback loops, the transfer of information and circular causation, and these ideas soon turned out to be important in dealing with the functioning of living beings as well as modern technology, especially in the fields of electronics and information technologies. Wiener would later name this field of science cybernetics.

Wiener’s fundamental idea was that cybernetics did not only explain the fields of information technology, but the nature of man and human society as well. Information flowing between people, animals and machines is essentially the same. An efficient flow of information is of vital importance to the stable functioning of a system, as it enables it to maintain equilibrium or homeostasis by way of feedback loops.

The idea of cybernetics as a way of introducing new ways of thinking with technological promise for practical application has also drawn in many other eminent scientists. Soon after the war a narrow circle of these scientists started gathering, in special meetings which could last for several days, during which they exchanged thoughts on the vast array of different applications the basic principles of cybernetics might serve. Apart from Wiener and his MIT colleagues, the group included the all-round mathematician and physicist John von Neumann, some neurologists, biologists and the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead.

The scientists were united by the idea that the principles of cybernetics could enable them to learn how the brain and thought functioned. This would in turn give them the knowledge to develop an artificial brain, or a machine something like today’s computer. At the first conference, Mead presented her research describing how some of the peoples of the South Pacific maintain social stability with rituals which she had interpreted as a form of social information feedback loops.

A critic of social development

Despite the fact that Wiener had always been actively involved in scientific projects for the American military during the Second World War, he was not invited to join the chosen few who were selected to develop the atom bomb. His scientific credentials were not at all in doubt, but military intelligence regarded him as a security liability. He was not very stable emotionally, and was a fervent supporter of public access to all knowledge, a conviction which caused him to part ways with some of his research colleagues after the war. Also problematic was his marriage to a German woman whose family back in Germany was loyal to the Nazi regime. Indeed a cousin of his wife’s worked as an administrator in a concentration camp.

After the war, he quickly realized that society was not developing the way he had hoped. He was deeply upset by the fact that more and more knowledge was kept secret. During the cold war the government engaged many scientists to take part in its military projects. These scientists developed many different technologies, but a lot of the findings remained hidden from the public. Wiener had a vision of a stable world functioning according to the principles of cybernetics. This stability would be based on an efficient information flow, maintained by feedback loops, which would keep society in a state of homeostasis, much as a living being is kept alive by its inner regulatory mechanisms.

He voiced his concerns publicly, after which he was followed by secret services who suspected him of “subversive activity” and “sympathizing with communism”. He only managed to avoid more severe sanctions because he had never worked on any of the military’s most classified projects and could therefore not reveal any secrets about nuclear weapons or plans of similar strategic consequence. However, his professional career did suffer a blow as a result of his critical public statements. Life today would be almost unimaginable without a number of technologies made possible by Wiener’s pioneering work on cybernetics. Even so, his name was soon largely unknown beyond the specialists who continue to benefit from his thought.