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Macy Conferences on Cybernetics 1946 to 1953

Few know about the Macy Conferences in the United States that occurred between 1946 and 1953. Fewer understand their importance to the history of science and technology. Those with an interest in the history of computing should add the study of those conferences to their reading list. The attendees include founding fathers of the computer age, such as John von Neumann and Claude Shannon. There is information on the Conferences available from the Internet, however, some of it is of low quality and occassionally mixed in with the odd conspiracy theory. Fortunately there are some who do understand the importance of the Macy Conferences and have published serious work on it.

The transactions from the conferences are collated in the 700 page book Cybernetics, The Macy Conferences 1946 - 1953, The Complete Transactions, edited by Claus Pias, ISBN 978-3-03734-598-6. It is available from diaphanes. Reading some of the conversations in the book between the scientists at the Conferences reveals the discussion of ideas that would later become major branches of scientific study and the foundations for theories in computer science and other disciplines. The echos of those discussions still apply to today's machine based world. Regarding the machine based world the conferences including discussions on computing devices, e.g. a chess playing machine. This is all at a time when computing was in its infancy and instead of a computer fitting into your pocket they required large rooms and large amounts of energy.

The title of the book is slightly misleading. Whilst there were ten conferences that ran from 1946 to 1953 the was no formal output from the first five. In the book the transactions begin with the sixth conference, 24th to 25th March 1949. At the end of the transactions for the tenth conference, 22nd to 24th April 1953, there is a brief discussion of the previous nine conferences, though no details from the first five.

Another point to make is that the title of Cybernetics was not applied to the conferences until the sixth one. Starting on page 347 in a A Note by the Editors for the eighth conference:

With the publication of Norbert Wiener's book Cybernetics, a term appeared which was unanimously chosen as title for the sixth conference in the spring of 1949. The title Cybernetics was maintained for the seventh and the present eighth conference 1951 with the subtitle Circular Causal and Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems.

Norbert Wiener

The first five conferences were known under a different name. It was only later that they became part of the ten conferences all under the Cybernetics banner, with their original name becoming a subtitle.

The first Macy Foundation Conference in March 1946 was devoted to Feedback Mechanisms and Circular Causal Systems in Biological and Social Systems. This first conference originated from the Macy Foundation Conference on Cerebral Inhibition in May 1942. It is worth noting that the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics were, and still are, a small part of the medical based conferences that preceded and came after them. The Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation was created by heiress Kate Macy Ladd in 1930 to honor her father. It still operates today.

The subject of the second conference was influenced by the publication of the article on Behavior, Purpose and Teleology by Rosenblueth, Wiener and Bigelow in 1943. The second conference in October 1946 was titled Teleological Mechanisms and Circular Causal Systems. (Between the first and second conference the National Academy of Sciences held a symposium on Teleological Mechanisms inspired and supported by Macy Conference attendees.)

In March 1947 the 3rd conference was still titled Teleological Mechanisms and Circular Causal Systems. The title for the fourth conference in October 1947 was Circular Causal and Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems, similar to the first conference title. The fifth conference, in spring 1948, retained that title. When Norbert Wiener's book on Cybernetics was published in 1948 an agreement at the sixth conference (which kept the same name as for the fourth and fifth) is reached to use the name Cybernetics for the conferences. Thus the conference transactions are titled Cybernetics and the original conference titles become subtitles (with conferences four to ten all subtitled the same).

During World War II governments created multi-disciplinary scientific teams to solve problems that were hampering the military campaign and to gain a technological edge over the enemy. The atomic bomb and cracking the Enigma encryption are prime examples of such teams. The spirit of inter-disciplinary science used to solve problems are evident in the Macy Conferences initiated by Frank Fremont-Smith. Whilst some of the science for the conference transactions is now outdated and irrelevant there is much that can be taken from them. Especially those interested in aspects of computing history. This article is only intended to raise interest in a small part of computing (and other sciences) history that is the Macy Conferences. Seek out the book or online resources for more detail.

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