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3 posts categorized "Contemporary Britain"

20 April 2016

The Thinking Machine: W Ross Ashby and the Homeostat

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The British Library holds the personal archive of W. Ross Ashby - psychiatrist and expert in cybernetics (the study of the control of systems using technology). In this guest post Hallvard Haug, postdoctoral fellow at Birkbeck, University of London, examines the figure of W. Ross Ashby and his key invention the homeostat - a machine capable of adapting itself to the environment. A shorter article on W. Ross Ashby is featured on the British Library Untold Lives blog.

Ross Ashby (1903-1972) was a central figure of the post-war cybernetics movement in the UK, especially due to the popularity of his books Design for a Brain (1952) and  An Introduction to Cybernetics (1956). Ashby kept a thorough record of his thoughts throughout his adult life, and a collection of his papers has been donated to the British Library by his family.

Photograph of W Ross Ashby taken in his office 1963, Biological Computing Laboratory, University of Illinois. Copyright the Estate of W. Ross Ashby.

The centrepiece of the collection is Ashby’s notebooks which he kept from 1928 up until the year of his death. Among students of cybernetics these are legendary, and for good reason. Over the course of nearly 50 years, Ashby took meticulous stock of his thoughts on the material nature of the brain, and the notebooks show the workings of a highly systematic and deeply creative mind. Written in a precise hand, the journals brim with insights, speculations, calculations, graphs, drawings, newspaper clippings and circuit diagrams. Ashby also kept a meticulous topical record complete with content pages, cross referencing, summaries of entries, as well as two different sets of indexes — also included in the collection (Add MS 89153/27-30). Eventually, the notebooks ran to 7189 pages and spanned a total of 25 volumes.

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Journals 18-25 with handwritten labels including page numbers (Add MS 89153/18-25). Copyright the Estate of W. Ross Ashby.

At first, the notebooks were a pastime; eventually, however, the ideas Ashby explored became original enough to be publishable and in time these notes became the focus of his working life as his cybernetics work. The most famous of his innovations was the homeostat, a machine which demonstrated and embodied his theory of learning and adaptation in a mechanical apparatus which, entirely on its own, regains stability when perturbed. The development of the homeostat is documented thoroughly in the notebooks, from its first entry on 19 November 1946:

"I have been trying to develope [sic] further principles for my machine to illustrate stability, + to develope ultrastability" (Add MS 89153/9).

In the coming years, it was the centrepiece for his cybernetic activities.

The homeostat — a bulky and somewhat baroque machine built from military surplus parts — had a single purpose: to regain stability in response to perturbations in its environment. It is hard to convey precisely how the homeostat worked: set up as four identical units connected to each other via electrical inputs and outputs, each unit was topped with electrically conducing vanes dipped in water troughs. Like oscillographs, the vanes moved back and forth in the trough, reacting to the electrical input from their environment — the output from other blocks in the setup — and each block had an electrical output determined by the position of the vane in the trough. If the vane was directly in the middle of the trough, the electrical output was zero; if, however, it was positioned any other place in the trough, it provided electrical output to the other blocks, affecting the positions of the vanes it was connected to. Thus, when the machine was set in action by pushing a vane out of position, the vanes on all four units would react by moving back and forth, in reaction to their respective environments.

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Image of Ashby’s hand drawn diagram for the final version of the Homeostat from page 2432, Journal 11. (Add MS 89153/11). Copyright the Estate of W. Ross Ashby.

What made the homeostat so interesting, however, was its ability to return to equilibrium once a vane had been upset. Each of the units was constructed to also produce electric feedback to their respective vanes, depending on the conductivity of the vane. This feedback was determined according to a random table, and the machine would cycle through the table as long as the electrical output was not zero. Eventually, however, the vanes, cycling through random states, would come to a halt as each block found the appropriate feedback configuration. For Ashby, the return to equilibrium that the homeostat demonstrated was equivalent to the brain’s — whether human or animal — capacity for learning. The return to equilibrium demonstrated by the homeostat also showed how what only seems purposeful can come about by randomness, and Ashby believed this principle of feedback mechanisms spontaneously restoring equilibrium was a governing principle in nature. Indeed, in 1945 he noted that he had decided to follow in Darwin’s footsteps: like with the homeostat’s return to equilibrium, he viewed a species’ evolutionary adaptation to its environment as a return to equilibrium, and is only apparently purposeful. This tendency towards what Ashby called ‘ultrastability’ was referred to by Norbert Wiener as no less than ‘one of the great philosophical contributions of the present day.’ Eventually, Ashby was invited to present it at the ninth Macy conference for cybernetics in 1952.

Image of the Homeostat taken from Ashby’s lecture slides. (Add MS 89152/40). Copyright the Estate of W. Ross Ashby.

The influence cybernetics exerted on both the sciences and humanities in the 1950s and ’60s was considerable: its central insights touched upon, transformed and occasionally dominated disciplines ranging from computer science, artificial intelligence and genetics through psychology and sociology, and also influenced intellectual movements such as structuralism. Its universal character gained it great popular appeal, but also meant cybernetics never had a comfortable institutional or disciplinary home, with only a few university departments dedicated to it. Despite its popular appeal, Ashby has remained something of an obscure figure. The autobiographical notebook ‘Passing through nature…’ gives a rare insight into his private thoughts, and suggests that it was at least partly due to Ashby’s reticence towards being in the public eye:

"My fear is now that that [sic] I may become conspicuous for a book of mine is in the press. For this sort of success I have no liking. My ambitions are vaguer.

   I am something of an artist, not with pencil or paint, for I have no skill there, but with a deep appreciation of the perfect. […] I have an ambition some day to produce something faultless." (Add MS 89153/33)

Against his inclinations, Ashby set out to spark public interest in his ideas in the 1940s, and for a brief period the homeostat was the topic both of popular magazines and radio shows, promoted as an ‘artificial brain.’ Ashby kept a record of his success, pasting newspaper clippings in the notebooks. The journals are a treasure trove for insight into the trajectory of ideas: from the premature attempts at precisely stating a problem, to the mature implementation, years later, of a successful theory and its subsequent dissemination.

Hallvard Haug is a Wellcome ISSF postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Medical Humanities at Birkbeck, University of London. His interest in W. Ross Ashby stems from his PhD research on the history of human enhancement technologies, which included a section on cybernetics.

Further reading:

The British Library acquired the W. Ross Ashby archive in 2003. It consists of notebooks, correspondence, notes, index cards, slides and offprints and is available to researchers through the British Library Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue at Add MS 89153. The estate of W. Ross Ashby also maintains a website The W. Ross Ashby Digital Archive which contains digitised copies of much of this material as well as a biography and photographs. It can be found at

Andrew Pickering, The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches for Another Future (Chicago: 2010).

Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings, 2nd ed. (London: 1989).

01 February 2016

Alice's Adventures in Numberland - answers

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Here we reveal the answers of our Lewis Carroll-inspired brainteasers. (The questions feature in a previous blog post)


MAZE Knight

Can you find a route from the outside of the maze to the centre?


DOUBLETS KnightKnight

For each pair of words, can you find a series of words which link them, changing just one letter each time? All links must be real words.











Each couplet in this poem clues an 8-letter word. If you find all 8 words, their first letters will spell out a word, and their last letters will spell out another word.


They’ll jump off a cliff from a great height, for fun

In a computer game from 1991



Just the right tipple for a long run

To match your own chemical composition


Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) © National Portrait Gallery, London


Kids won’t touch it - they prefer jam

Sounds like it’s near Lewisham



Practise makes perfect, that’s what they say

Regarding the vehicle that takes you away



Brenda with three Es is feeling pretty

Confused about this northern city



Caesar’s troubled by its bite

Maybe a candlelit dinner tonight?



It’s almost like there’ll be bows and knots

At the time of year you give presents lots



First letters spell out: LIBRARY

Last letters spell out: SCIENCE



Can you devise a rotation ambigram for the word FISH? Or a reflection ambigram for BIRD?

  Fish and bird ambigrams answers

Rotation ambigram for the word FISH (from Reflection ambigram or the word BIRD  (from



Can you draw this shape made from three interlaced squares, using one continuous line, without going over any parts of the line twice, without intersecting the line you’ve already drawn, and without taking your pen off the paper?

Overlapping squares


A DINNER PARTY KnightKnightKnight

At a dinner party, the host invites his father’s brother-in-law, his brother’s father-in-law, his father-in-law’s brother, and his brother-in-law’s father. What’s the smallest number of guests there could be?

A dinner party solution

Males are denoted by upper case and females are denoted by lower case letters. The host is C and his guest is E. His father's brother-in-law is B or C. His brother's father-in-law is C. His father-in-law's brother is C. His brother-in-law's father is C. Therefore the smallest number of guests is 1, C.


ANAGRAMS KnightKnight

Can you unscramble these sentences to form relevant phrases?







With thanks to Katie Steckles (@stecks) for compiling these puzzles. Katie Steckles is a mathematician based in Manchester, who gives talks and workshops on maths. She finished her PhD in 2011, and since then has talked about maths in schools, at science festivals, on BBC radio, at music festivals, as part of theatre shows and on the internet. She enjoys doing and writing puzzles, solving the Rubik's cube and baking things shaped like maths.These puzzles furst featured in the Alices Advemtures in Numberland event featuring geek comedy trio Festval of the Spoken Nerd

04 October 2015

From fiction to fact: the science of Animal Tales

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Alice Kirke investigates the facts behind the fiction of the British Library’s Animal Tales exhibition.

The Animal Tales exhibition at the British Library explores what our portrayal of animals within literature tells us about ourselves. The natural environment and its inhabitants have inspired generations of writers, but how do some of our favourite, anthropomorphised fictional creatures compare to their real-life counterparts? I set out to discover what the science says about the creatures lurking among the pages.

Cats: aloof and independent?

Valued for their companionship, skill in hunting vermin, and role in numerous ‘funny cat videos’ on YouTube, the domestic cat was first classified as ‘Felis catus’ by the Swedish botanist and zoologist Carolus Linnaeus in 1758. The exhibition features French philosopher Michel de Montaigne’s Essays,[1] in which he famously asked ‘When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me?’ People have kept cats as pets for thousands of years. Though they are commonly thought to have first been domesticated by the Ancient Egyptians, who considered them to be sacred, there is evidence of earlier domestication dating from around 9,500 years ago.[2] There are many theories and misconceptions about the behaviour of these enigmatic pets. As predators, cats are very focussed on their environment leading to the common misreading of their behaviour as aloof, and although they are seen as ‘independent’ they are in fact social animals. Cat communication includes a variety of vocalizations as well types of cat-specific body language.[3]


Snakes: slithering and sinister?

A 17th century depiction of Lamia from Edward Topsell's The History of Four-Footed Beasts

Snakes have a sinister reputation in literature and culture. In ancient Greek mythology Lamia, the mistress of Zeus was transformed into a terrifying serpentine demon by Zeus’ jealous wife Hera. In Keats’ poem Lamia[4], displayed in the exhibition, the protagonist appears in her beautiful human form before being transformed back into a serpent at her wedding feast. To an extent, this was a comment on science itself; knowledge of the natural world destroyed its beauty.



 Snakes are perhaps so often portrayed as evil in literature because some species are dangerous to humans, but snakes are diverse creatures- there are over 3,000 species of snake in the world, with at least one type of snake on every continent except Antarctica. There is debate among evolutionary psychologists over whether the fear of snakes is innate. Since those with a phobia of snakes would be more likely to stay away from them and avoid the dangers of being bitten, they had a better chance of surviving and passing on their genes. Recent research suggests that although the fear of snakes is a learned behaviour, people do have a knack for spotting them; when shown images of snakes surrounded by objects of a similar colour babies and young children detected snakes faster than other objects.  

Spiders: creepy crawlies?

Frequent scare stories in the UK press about invasions of deadly spiders prey on a common fear of arachnids. There are over 40,000 different species worldwide, and although the vast majority are venomous most are not dangerous to humans. Arachnologists, experts who study spiders emphasise their diversity in terms of their appearance, habitats and behaviour.

Due to their wide range of behaviours, they have become symbolic of various attributes, including patience, cruelty and creativity in art and mythology.  The character of Anansi, a spider who often acts and appears as a man in West African and Caribbean folklore, has taken on a variety of different traits over time. Anansi Company,[5] featured in the exhibition, is a modern version of tales about Anansi and his friends which are central to Caribbean culture.

Crow: cruel or cunning?

The Crow and the Pitcher, illustrated by Milo Winter in 1919

In common English, corvids including crows, ravens, rooks, jackdaws, jays and magpies, are all known as ‘the crow family’.  Ted Hughes’ Crow draws on mythology surrounding the much maligned creature, which is often connected with death.[6] In Irish mythology, crows are associated with Morrigan, the goddess of war and death, and the collective name for a group of crows is a ‘murder’. However, they have also been linked with prophesy, cunning and intelligence. In one of Aesop’s fables, a thirsty crow spied a pitcher containing a small amount of water, which was out of reach of its bill. The crow began dropping pebbles into the pitcher one by one, thereby raising the level of water and enabling it to drink. A 2009 study published in Current Biology which replicated Aesop's fable, found that four captive rooks used stones to raise the level of water in a container, allowing a floating worm to move into reach, showing that the goal-directed behaviour of Aseop’s crow is reflected in actual corvid behaviour. European magpies have demonstrated self-awareness in mirror tests, and crows and rooks have been shown to have the ability to make and use tools, previously regarded as a skill specific to humans and a few other higher mammals. This scientific research suggests that crows are one of the most intelligent animals in the world.

Animal Tales showcases many more familiar yet enigmatic creatures. The wealth of material in the Library collections can be used to trace animals in literature as well as the latest scientific research about their characteristics- come and see the exhibition and follow up with some research into your favourite fictional beasts!

[1] Michel de Montaigne, Les Essais de Michel Seigneur de Montaigne. (Paris, 1602) C.28.g.7

[2] Vigne JD, Guilaine J, Debue K, Haye L, Gérard P (April 2004). "Early taming of the cat in Cyprus". Science 304 (5668): 259

[3] Dennis C. Turner, and Patrick Bateson, The domestic cat: the biology of its behaviour. (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2000) m00/46105

[4] John Keats, Lamia, Isabella, the Eve of St. Agnes & other poems. (Waltham St. Lawrence, 1928)

[5] Ronald King & Roy Fisher, Anansi Company. (London, 1992) C.193.c.8

[6] Ted Hughes & Leonard Baskin, Crow: from the life and songs of the Crow (London, 1973)