By Jamie Hutchinson
Ingenuity newsletter, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, May 2004
A truly unique ECE professor for nearly 30 years, Heinz von Foerster made his mark in cybernetics—a field which brings engineering, social and natural sciences, and the arts and humanities to bear on the understanding of control and communication in animals and machines. Cybernetics flourished from World War II through the 1960s, and while it has not survived as a unified, established academic field, it has helped spawn new fields including cognitive science, computer science, complex systems, neural networks, bionics, robotics, and artificial intelligence—not to mention lots of great science fiction.
Von Foerster's academic focus through college in his native Vienna, Austria, was in mathematics, logic, and physics. By 1938, he was turning his attention to the biological and psychological subjects that would occupy him at Illinois, but his interests were thwarted by the Nazi invasion of Austria. Von Foerster, wife Mai, and their growing family spent the war years in Berlin and in Silesia (now part of Poland), where von Foerster earned his physics PhD in 1944 at the University of Breslau (now Wroclaw).
The family returned to Vienna after the war, but opportunities were few. Friends in the U.S. invited Von Foerster to visit in 1949, and upon arriving in New York he informally circulated a paper exploring possible molecular bases for human memory. That February, he flew to Chicago to present his ideas at the University of Illinois medical school in Chicago, where he first met Warren McCullough, a prominent neuropsychiatrist, cybernetics pioneer, and founder of the field of neural networks. McCullough helped to get von Foerster a position in ECE as head of the Tube Laboratory.
While von Foerster had developed expertise in vacuum tubes during his wartime research, the most exciting activity in physical electronics was moving away from tubes and into semiconductors, gaseous electronics, and electro-optics. Meanwhile, von Foerster's own interest turned increasingly toward cybernetics. McCullough invited von Foerster into an ongoing series of conferences on the East Coast, sponsored by the Josiah Macy Foundation, at which cybernetics and related subjects were being explored by the likes of John von Neumann, Claude Shannon, Norbert Wiener, and Margaret Mead. Von Foerster became editor of the Macy conference proceedings. By 1958, the Tube Lab was no more, and von Foerster had secured Pentagon funding to establish the Biological Computer Laboratory (BCL).
BCL operated under 25 grants until its demise (and von Foerster's retirement) in 1975, producing dozens of master's and doctoral theses and hundreds of articles and books. Von Foerster used his connections and charisma to attract an extraordinary array of thinkers and researchers for extended stays at BCL. Among them were Ross Ashby, Gordon Pask, Lars Lofgren, Gothard Gunther, Humberto Maturana, and Francisco Varela—all major names in cybernetics. Paul Weston and Murray Babcock, who began as students in BCL and later joined the ECE faculty, built machines that emulated aspects of the human auditory and visual systems. For example, Weston's "Numa-rete" was one of the first parallel computing machines. The Numa-rete consisted of an array of 400 photocells and circuitry that easily outperformed a human in counting irregularly shaped objects that were placed on it. Ricardo Uribe, familiar to ECE undergraduates to this day, used the PLATO computer network to model the process of autopoiesis (literally, "self-production"), following a seminal paper that he coauthored with Maturana and Varela entitled "Autopoiesis: The organization of living systems, its characterization and a model" (BioSystems 5, 1974).
After retirement, Von Foerster moved to California and remained active as a speaker, writer, and mentor until his death. He returned to Urbana-Champaign for conferences and for residencies with students at Allen Hall. Researchers working all over the world in a wide array of fields recognize a debt to cybernetics and credit von Foerster as one of the movement's visionary catalysts. Locally, BCL prefigured interdisciplinary campus enterprises like the Beckman Institute and Department of Bioengineering, though BCL's practice was more fundamental and more inclusive. Today, the contributions of the lab and its founder are better recognized on the south side of Green Street than on the north.
Friends and associates remember Heinz and Mai as humanitarians of the first order. After a son was killed in a motorcycle accident while working for the Peace Corps in Nigeria, they dealt with their loss by sponsoring a Nigerian student at U of I. Von Foerster used his connections to help Chilean colleagues, including Uribe, get positions outside Chile after dictator Augusto Pinochet seized power in a US-backed coup. And "starving students" working in BCL often filled their bellies with delicious food at the von Foersters' home on Flora Court in Champaign.