20: Norbert Wiener's Magazines: Part I

A visit to the cybernetics pioneer’s attic

Most summers, I spend some time in central New Hampshire where I stay in a home that was once owned by cybernetics pioneer Norbert Wiener. Not much remains from when Norbert and his wife Margaret lived there, but a few things are still around.

Back in 2006, I wrote a post about some of his books that are still on his bookshelves. But this past summer, I was exploring the attic and found a stack of old magazines that the Wieners kept from as far back as 1927. Let’s check them out.

I’ll share some things that stood out to me in reverse chronological order, starting with the most recent magazine before his death. Wiener died from a heart attack in March of 1964. This issue of U.S. News & World Report came out just one month earlier:

He wrote “page 85” on the cover. He wrote page numbers on a lot of magazines, usually indicating where he appears in that issue. This magazine has a long feature about the future of computers starting on page 80…

[By the way, you can click to embiggen these; I didn’t want to bog down this newsletter with super-high-res images but they should be big enough to read the text if you want]

…and on page 85 there’s this big interview with Wiener about the potential of Artificial Intelligence.

Excerpt from the interview:

Q: Is there a chance that machines may learn more than man? Are they doing this now?

A: Certainly not now and certainly not for a long time, if ever. But if they do, it’s because we have ceased to learn. I mean, it’s easier for us to learn than for the machine. If we worship the machine, and leave everything to the machine, we’ve got ourselves to thank for any trouble we get in.

The next Terminator movie should be about scientists who go back a little further in time and have a conversation with Wiener. That’s it. That’s the movie.

Unrelated, the same issue also has an interview with sociologist David Riesman reassuring people that “the furor over the singers who call themselves the Beatles” is not a sign that American youngsters are going crazy, but just “a form of protest against the adult world” that will go away like all fads. In case you were worried.

Here’s a collage of the other magazines Wiener kept from the 1960s. Most of these have interviews with or articles about him. Meet me at the bottom of this image:

You see that one in the bottom right corner called Voo Doo? That’s MIT’s “only intentionally humorous campus publication.” It started in 1919 and it’s still around. They even have a digital archive you can explore.

I don’t know why Wiener kept this one issue, but maybe he liked this article on the structural engineering problems of strapless evening gowns:

Another interesting find: the May 1961 Technology Review has some articles that make predictions about the future, speculating that some day every college student might have a computer, and predicting how we might get books in the year 2000:

The article about book retrieval still assumes we’re reading physical books and are just using computers to find them, which I guess does happen at bookstores and libraries. But I was surprised it didn’t also predict digital books. eBooks feel like a post-2000 product, but surprisingly, Project Gutenberg started way back in 1971.

I couldn’t figure out why Wiener kept that one issue of LIFE magazine. Maybe he was just a big Liz Taylor fan.

Before I moved on to the magazines from the 1950s, I decided I should clean the attic floor a bit because I kept stepping on little sticks. Maybe I should have wondered why there were little sticks in the attic. And then I looked closer. Turns out those weren’t sticks.

I assume this was the remains of an unfortunate mouse. Maybe someone out there can identify an animal by its bones. And maybe I should not have been in the attic barefoot.

Anyway. Moving on to the 1950s!

Here are a few of the interesting things I found in his magazines from the 1950s.

Apparently Wiener subscribed to the British humor magazine Punch for a while. Friends, believe me when I tell you that I looked through these magazines desperate to find something funny. I like good British humor. I’m a fan of Monty Python, and I guess I can understand the appeal of Benny Hill or the Carry On movies. I could even chuckle at Dudley Moore. But I didn’t find these funny at all.

Maybe that’s why he stopped subscribing.

Among the 1950s magazines, Wiener also had this catalog listing all the M.I.T. faculty in 1957:

Of course, I found Norbert Wiener:

But then I got to thinking that there were probably other notable members of the M.I.T. faculty who were there at the same time. So I looked and found:

Jay W. Forrester, who was one of the inventors of computer memory, and is credited with making the first ever computer animation: a bouncing ball on a computer oscilloscope.

I also found Harold “Doc” Edgerton! You’ve most likely seen his work even if you don’t know his name. He developed strobe lights that flashed so quickly they could be used to capture a brief slice of time in a photograph. Here are some of his photos you may recognize:

One of his strobes could flash up to 120 times per second. He used this technology in collaboration with photographer Gjon Mili to create beautiful images like this:

Speaking of Stopping Time

Unfortunately, this is where we must pause for this week. It turns out that there’s a limit to how long an email can be and still display completely in gmail, and I’m right up against that limit. So I’m going to save the rest of the 1950s and earlier magazines for next week’s issue because a lot of you are gmail users.

You can blame gmail for the interruption.

Thanks for reading. See you next week for Part II.