Conway & Siegelman – Cibernética de Norbert Wiener

Through the war years and after,Wiener had been reaching for just the right term that would capture the essence of the new science of communication and control. Now, with that need and his book deadline bearing down, he dug into his vast store of knowledge in classical languages and the history of science. As he reported later:I went to work very hard on this, but the . . . thing that puzzled me was what title to choose for the book and what name for the subject. I first looked for a Greek word signifying “messenger,” but the only one I knew was angelos . . . meaning “angel,” a messenger of God. The word was thus pre-empted and would not give me the right context. Then I looked for an appropriate word from the field of control. The only word I could think of was the Greek word for steersman, kubernêtês. I decided that, as the word I was looking for was to be used in English, I ought to take advantage of the English pronunciation of the Greek, and hit on the name cybernetics.

The word had a nice ring to it and a proud etymology. The classical texts Wiener recited as a youth were peopled with kubernêtai—with steersmen, helmsmen, and pilots of humble birth and high purpose. Steersmen made frequent appearances in Greek epic poems and dramas, where they navigated majestic ships and heroic figures safely across wine-dark seas. Greek philosophers, too, were fascinated by steersmen. In a dialogue on rhetoric that was thick with nautical allusions, Socrates veered off on a rhetorical tangent that foreshadowed Wiener’s mission two millennia later:The art of the steersman saves the souls of men and their bodies . . . from the extremity of danger . . . yet it has no airs or pretences of doing anything extraordinary. . . . He who is the master of the art . . . walks about on the sea-shore by his ship in an unassuming way [but] he knows . . . which of his passengers he has benefited . . . by not letting them be lost at sea.

The term had survived through the ages. In the nineteenth century, the French physicist André-Marie Ampère, a founder of the science of electricity, used the word cybernétique to describe the “art of government,” although Wiener would not learn that until after his book was published. Instead, he knew the word “cybernetics” in its Latin form, gubernātor—the root of the English word governor. In 1789, Watt first used that term in a technical context to describe the flyball feedback apparatus that controlled the speed of his steam engine. A century later, James Clerk Maxwell secured the term in the scientific literature in his famous paper, “On Governors,” published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, but by then the concept already had come stem to stern with the advent of the first automatic, feedback-controlled steering engines for seafaring steamships.

To commemorate the human kubernêtai of antiquity and the first practical cybernetic devices of the industrial age, Wiener named his new science cybernetics—because “it was the best word I could find to express the art and science of control over the whole range of fields in which this notion is applicable.”