Federal Funding Impact Story #8

Project: The Cybernetics Thought Collective: A History of Science and Technology Portal Project

Granting Agency: National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)
Grant Program:  Humanities Collections and Reference Resources
Institutions: University of Illinois Archives, British Library, American Philosophical Society, and MIT Institute Archives and Special Collections
State: Illinois
Congressional District: 13th Illinois Congressional District
Grant Period: May 2017-2018
Award Amount: $49, 973
Institutional Match Amount: $34,976

Jobs Created:
– 1 PTE 20 hr/week position for 6 months
– 1 PTE for 20 hr/week position for 10 months.

Project Description
University of Illinois Archives, British Library, American Philosophical Society, and MIT Institute Archives & Special Collections have been awarded a grant from the NEH to develop a prototype web-portal and analysis-engine to provide access to archival material related to the development of the iconic, multi-disciplinary field of cybernetics. The grant is part of the NEH’s Humanities Collections and Reference Resources Foundations program.

“The Cybernetics Thought Collective: A History of Science and Technology Portal Project,” is a collaborative effort among four institutions that maintain archival records vital to the exploration of cybernetic history. In addition to supporting the development of a web-portal and analysis-engine, the award will enable the multi-institutional team to begin digitizing some of the archival records related to the pioneering work of U of I Electrical Engineering professors Heinz von Foerster and W. Ross Ashby, neurophysiologist Warren S. McCulloch, and mathematician Norbert Wiener.

What was the need for the grant?
The participating institutions sought federal grant funds in order to unite the personal archives of Heinz von Foerster, W. Ross Ashby, Warren S. McCulloch, and Norbert Wiener in a digital platform and thus create broader access for an international community of scholars studying the history and legacy of cybernetics.

Cybernetics, the science of communication and control systems, is generally regarded as one of the most influential scientific movements of the 20th century. At a time when postwar science had become highly compartmentalized, cybernetics epitomized the interdisciplinarity that has become emblematic of innovative research in the modern era. This project will provide greater access to the archival materials that document the rich and complex history of the “thought collective”—the scientific community of individuals exchanging thoughts and ideas about cybernetics.

What has been the primary impact of this project?
This project will draw greater visibility to the holdings of the four participating institutions. Cybernetics has influenced the development of a variety of disciplines, such as cognitive science, artificial intelligence, and computer science; being able to create broader access to archival materials that document this foundational multi-disciplinary movement will enable scholars to better study the evolution of these disciplines. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in particular, the project has spurred local interest and related initiatives to investigate the ways in which the Midwest, and central Illinois in particular, have contributed to the modern technological era.

Nationally and internationally, the project enables the four institutions to form a partnership that unites related archival material that is geographically dispersed. We hope creating online access to these digitized materials will make them more accessible to scholars who aren’t able to travel to the repositories where these materials are held.

NEH funding for this project will enable the four institutions to digitize and create access to approximately 20 cubic feet of archival material initially. The project team will use the results from the prototype analysis-engine and prototype portal development to inform future work and hopefully a second phase of the project that includes other repositories with related archival material.

Submission by: Bethany Anderson, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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