ASC History

by Stuart Umpleby

The American Society for Cybernetics was founded in 1964 by a group of people in Washington, DC who were interested in the then new field of cybernetics. The founding members of the Society wanted to follow and to encourage the development of this interdisciplinary field.

A Discussion Group in Washington D.C.

In the late 1950s a group of people in Washington, DC, met monthly to discuss research in the field of cybernetics. These individuals worked in the government, academia, and the private sector. They formed the Washington Cybernetics Society as an unchartered social institution. After a few years they decided to create a formal, legal entity, and in June 1962 a steering committee was appointed to do so. The chairman was M.J. Pedelty of Adaptronics Inc. Other members of the Steering Committee were Dr. C.R. Porter, Dept. of Psychology at Howard University; D.K. Pollock, Office of Naval Research; and W.S. Pyles of the U.S. Patent Office. The objectives of the Washington Cybernetics Society included holding professional meetings, facilitating information exchange, fostering research, and encouraging public interest.

Founding a Professional Society

From this effort grew a group of people calling themselves the Ad Hoc Group on Cybernetics chaired by Dr. Paul S. Henshaw of the Atomic Energy Commission. In February 1964 the Ad Hoc Group took on the task of selecting an appropriate name and scope of activities for a national professional organization. In April 1964 approximately 100 copies of a letter were sent out inviting opinion and participation in the organization. This effort resulted in the present name, the American Society for Cybernetics, and papers of incorporation were filed.

On July 31, 1964 the American Society for Cybernetics was incorporated in the District of Columbia for the purposes of fostering development of the discipline, anticipating the impact of cybernetics, and providing current information on cybernetics. Paul Henshaw presided as chairman pro tem. The first directors were John J. Ford (CIA), Paul S. Henshaw (AEC), Douglas E. Knight (IBM), Robert B. Livingston, Donald N. Michael, William C. Moore (lawyer), and Walter N. Munster.

The first meeting of the Board of Directors was held on August 20, 1964. An inaugural dinner was held on October 16, 1964, at the Cosmos Club, Washington, D.C. The inaugural dinner chairman was Dr. Frank Freemont-Smith of the New York Academy of Sciences. The speakers were Warren McCulloch of MIT, Julian Bigelow of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and F.S.C. Northrop of Yale University. In addition to the foregoing, seven others were declared honorary founders: Herman Goldstine, Y.W. Lee, Oskar Morgenstern, Francis O. Schmitt, Hans Lukas Teuber, and Heinz Von Foerster. In December, 1964, a nominating committee was appointed to select a slate of officers to be elected in accordance with the charter and by-laws.

Early ASC Conferences

As a result of his work in organizing the Macy conferences, Warren McCulloch became the first elected president of the ASC. Heinz Von Foerster, who was co-editor with Margaret Mead of the proceedings of the Macy meetings, served as chairman of the Board of Directors of the ASC for a number of years. Between 1964 and 1974 the American Society for Cybernetics held conferences on the following topics:

  • Purposive Systems
  • Cybernetics and the Management of Large Systems
  • Cybernetics, Simulation and Conflict Resolution
  • Cybernetics and Ecology
  • Communication and Control in Social Processes.

A Period of Conflict

In the late 1970s a second organization was founded in Philadelphia under the name, the American Cybernetics Association (ACA). However, neither group was very active. No conference on cybernetics was held in the U.S. between 1974 and 1980. During this time many of the people who had been associated with cybernetics attended meetings of the Society for General Systems Research (now the International Society for the System Sciences).

In 1979 the two cybernetics organizations came back together using the title of the American Society for Cybernetics and the bylaws of the American Cybernetics Association. This merger was made possible by the work of Barry Clemson, aided by Larry Heilprin, Klaus Krippendorff, and Doreen Steg.

Discussions via Computer Network

In the late 1970s, several people interested in cybernetics used a computer conferencing system, The Electronic Information Exchange System (EIES), at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) to discuss current topics in cybernetics and general systems theory. Many of these people had been associated with the Biological Computer Laboratory at the University of Illinois. This interaction was supported by the National Science Foundation under a grant on Electronic Information Exchange for Small Research Communities. Stuart Umpleby, who was the moderator and principal investigator for the electronic information exchange on general systems theory was elected as ASC president in 1980. When the grant for the electronic information exchange came to an end, many of the people who had participated joined the reactivated American Society for Cybernetics.

The Gordon Research Conferences on Cybernetics

In the early 1980s as a result of the efforts of Leo Steg, the Gordon Research Conferences Committee voted to approve a conference on cybernetics. The first conference was held in New Hampton, New Hampshire in 1984, the second was held in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire in 1986, a third was held in Oxnard, California in 1988.

Improving the Management of the Society

In 1995, a home office for the ASC was established in the Center for Social and Organizational Learning at The George Washington University. Previously the home office of the Society moved every three years to the office of the new president. This arrangement required that the new president be concerned not only with initiating new programs but also with establishing and maintaining a database of members, opening a bank account, learning how to file income tax returns for a non-profit organization, etc. Keeping a home office in one location will relieve the officers of some administrative concerns so that they can concentrate on efforts to advance the field.

The Society now holds an annual conference, conducts seminars on the fundamentals of cybernetics, manage a listserve, and maintains contacts with cyberneticians in other countries.

Recent Developments

The more recent history of the ASC has been the subject of a Past President’s Day under the heading “Cybernetics of the Past” at the ASC’s 50th Anniversary Conference Living in Cybernetics at The George Washington University in Washington D.C. in August 2014. The collected results of this meeting are currently being collected into a formal publication.

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