A fool’s quest for the first use of the phrase ‘systems thinking’

Edit: TLDR

The oldest find so far is claimed to be

Although new historical discoveries can be made, as of this writing, the answer is 1938 in a book entitled, “Interpretations and Misinterpretations of Modern Physics” by Philipp Frank. There are many misconceptions and an abundance of misinformation on Google search of when the term “Systems Thinking” (or “System Thinking”) was first used. This publication identifies the first documented use of the term. Note that the first use of the term is not the same as the first discussion of systems, systems, sciences, thinking about systems, complexity, etc. In this article, we are simply looking for the first documented use of the specific term.

The quote given in the article is:

All expressions like « holism », « wholeness consideration », « system thinking », « gestalt conception », and the like, are altogether ambiguous. They waver between genuine anthropomorphism on the one hand, which is logically comprehensible but primitive, and as the experience of centuries of scientific development teaches, comparatively unfruitful; and broad and provisional, but nevertheless physical, hypotheses on the other, which may be of scientific value. In the case of the latter it is not, however, conceded that they are quite ordinary physics, because of the desire to satisfy somehow the longing for the return of pre-scientific spiritualism

(This is, in my opinion, a hostile witness!)

This is in a journal piece published by Derek Cabrera, in the Cabreras’ journal: https://journalofsystemsthinking.org/index.php/jost/article/view/1383 (registration required – no charges)

An early version of that journal article was

The other earliest claims found so far are:

Safety in Air Navigation. Hearings … Jan. 22-23, 28-31, 1947
United States Congress HouseCommittee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce
“The Army and Navy have already established separate organizations, assigning to them the responsibilities of research and development, including such tasks as long-range planning, systems thinking, and coordination”
Regarding Safety in Air Systems Navigation, Statement of Loren F Jones, Radio Corporation of America, Camden, NJ
(This appears to be contrasting ‘systems thinking’ to ‘equipment thinking’; I think it qualifies, though it may be debatable!)

Kelman, Harold. American Journal of Psychoanalysis; New York Vol. 12, Iss. 1, (Jan 1, 1952): 50.

Two references:
Michael Michaelis
Rear Admiral Frederick L Ashworth, Naval Aviation News
(links to both given below)

The full blog and the comments below reflect incoming contributions and builds, and the publication of the Cabrera piece, so are a little higgledy-piggledy, as befits a Fool’s Quest.


(In which our hero is once again spending Too Much Time on pointless things, and is quietly disappointed to find maybe the first use of the phrase embedded in systems engineering and the military).

A recent social media discussion had me doing ‘a quick google’ as I’ve heard many claims over the years for the ‘origin of the term’. I found out some interesting things!

Note that this is *not* a quest for the origins of the *thinking* – see these quotes https://stream.syscoi.com/2019/10/28/some-quotes-on-the-theme-complexitythinking-is-systemsthinking-is-cybernetics/ for evidence that the concepts are very very old – we can certainly go back to the first thinking traditions we still have preserved to find out some pretty good stuff. And there is some stuff including a bunch of maps at https://stream.syscoi.com/2019/12/21/why-i-hope-we-could-do-better-than-the-castellani-complexity-map/ on the origins and tracery of the concepts.

(NB also that in a comment to that post I asked ‘who first used the expression ‘complex systems’, and when?’ – I had W. Ross Ashby, An Introduction to Cybernetics, 1957 – but I got some good earlier proposals including Talcott Parsons, “The Structure of Social Action II” from 1937, Sir Donald Ficher’s work on soil in the 1920s (cited by Ashby as a precedent), and William Bateson from 1888 – worth a look).

Systems thinking – origins of the phrase

There are many claims that the phrase ‘systems thinking’ was first used in the 1980s. This is clearly bunk because there are many earlier references.

It seems well-accepted that the phrase broke through into generally accepted usage with Emery’s Systems Thinking: Selected Readings in 1969. Though this is clearly not true on face value, since C. West Churchman’s The Systems Approach was one year earlier in 1968 – abstract from one who knows it well – https://csl4d.files.wordpress.com/2018/11/the-systems-approach-and-its-enemies-churchman-1979-abstarcts.pdf), the Emery compilation is explicitly about historic references so it is there I am looking for origins.

And (of course), m’colleague and former president of the International Society for Systems Sciences, David Ing, has resurrected the contents of that, mostly through the 1981 re-issued and extended version: https://ingbrief.wordpress.com/2020/08/08/1969-1981-emery-system-thinking-selected-readings/
The contents only otherwise available in disappointing ‘snippets’ on google books: https://books.google.rs/books?id=G2tHAAAAMAAJ&dq=editions:ISBN0140800719&lr= and https://books.google.rs/books?id=AdVEAAAAIAAJ&dq=editions:ISBN0140800719&lr=

But the contents PAGE is available here: https://archive.org/details/systemsthinkings00emerrich/page/n5/mode/2up

(I have ordered two copies of ‘the book’ from Amazon just now – but I’ve ordered at least twice before, and these appear to be ‘ghost books’ which are never delivered – my previous orders were cancelled).

Which gives Bertalanffy’s 1950 Theory of open systems in physics and biology https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.sci-hub.se/15398815/ – there’s also An Outline of General System Theory (1950) http://www.isnature.org/Events/2009/Summer/r/Bertalanffy1950-GST_Outline_SELECT.pdf but both reference systems, not ‘systems thinking’

(Though this wonderful ‘front matter’ with adverts from the same edition of Science magazine is a lot of fun: https://science.sciencemag.org/content/sci/111/2872/local/front-matter.pdf )
leads to several pre-1950s sources:

Angyal (1941)

Tantalisingly, Angyal’s 1941 ‘A logic of systems’ https://www.york.ac.uk/language/ypl/ypl1/06/YPL-06-03-Bell.pdf looks interesting (also referenced in ‘On the use of the term systems in logistics, Roger T Bell, likely 2006, which yields other deep roots in linguistics).

More intriguing things to follow up in ‘systems theory in the social sciences’ by Hugo Reading (assumed to be 1979) – https://ejournals.epublishing.ekt.gr/index.php/ekke/article/viewFile/6829/6552 – these are principally talking about ‘systems in the world’ not ‘systems in the mind’.

The Methodological Basis of Systems Theory, Phillips, 1962 also looks interesting: https://www.jstor.org.sci-hub.se/stable/255142?seq=1

There is also Angyal’s paper The Structure of Wholes, from 1939 – I can’t find a pdf at the moment, but I can see this talks of ‘Wholes and Wholism’ more than ‘systems’ https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/pdf/10.1086/286531
Angyal as a foundational figure is also referred to here: https://books.google.rs/books?id=oE_9_BXarx4C&pg=PA26&lpg=PA26&dq=%22the+structure+of+wholes%22+angyal&source=bl&ots=2HJ8iTU_rk&sig=ACfU3U3c1LkifmmedI4Ys6YUyfKqpWBEww&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwj8-NG40YfwAhUxi8MKHVLoCbAQ6AEwDnoECAkQAw#v=onepage&q=%22the%20structure%20of%20wholes%22%20angyal&f=false (Systems of Art: Art, History and Systems Theory By Francis Halsall, 2008) who, happily for my ‘integrational’ thesis, states “Systems theory emerged in the mid-20th century along with related theories such as Cybernetics and Information Theory. Recently it has included Complexity Theory, Chaos Theory and Social Systems Theory.”

Feibleman and Friend, 1945

Their ‘The Structure and Function of Organization’ talks extensive of systems and interdependency, but does not include the phrase ‘systems thinking’: https://www.jstor.org.sci-hub.se/stable/2181585?seq=1

Then there is:
Koehler, “closed and open systems” 1938 (to which I can find no direct links), though Systems theory: forgotten legacy and future prospects (Harney, 2019, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/335905615_Systems_theory_forgotten_legacy_and_future_prospects ), shows it as making a key distinction between closed and open systems. (And the paper also says: ”There is a rich and interdisciplinary underpinning to systems logic stretching back to classic research in work and organisations (Burns and Stalker, 1961), Dunlop’s (1958) Industrial Relations Systems, and foundational organisation theory (Katz and Kahn, 1966)”)

Selznick , 1948

For completeness, Selznick’s Foundations of the Theory of Organization, another pre-1950s paper: http://courses.washington.edu/ppm504/Selznick_Foudnations.pdf

Earliest discovered references

All the above is just chuff and flimflam, inasmuch as the google n-gram has clearly identified the two earliest published references to the specific phase that I have found so far:

Michael Michaelis in 1963 (November or December)

Nation’s Manpower Revolution: Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Employment …
By United States. Congress. Senate. Committee on Labor and Public Welfare

“it is in this context [to bring understanding of technology to bear on serving the collective needs of our people] that I am speaking about “systems thinking”. Systems thinking is a composite derived from a great variety of professional disciplines : it must also draw its talent from all relevant agencies in Government, industry, and labour. The power of the process of systems engineering is well known and demonstrated both in public and private enterprise”

(This is reiterated in a ‘greatest hits’ at https://books.google.rs/books?id=EBs2AAAAIAAJ&pg=PA872&lpg=PA872&dq=%22michael+michaelis%22+systems&source=bl&ots=LIPftoFsAi&sig=ACfU3U17q2bF5zXXysaxhSUpS3J1fNMCFw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiH_qXM24fwAhXqlYsKHal-ClMQ6AEwDnoECA8QAw#v=onepage&q=%22michael%20michaelis%22%20systems&f=false )

Amusingly, there is an extant Michael Michaelis working for BAE Systems – I’ve asked him if he is a relative.

The original Michael Michaelis was well published: https://www.tandfonline.com/author/Michaelis%2C+Michael

Rear Admiral Frederick L Ashworth, Naval Aviation News, 1963


Under “Here are some of the forces and ideas I see shaping the weapons of the Seventies:”
“Systems thinking. The realization is fast spreading that mission capability is the product of a total system. Weapons hardware is only one element of that total system Other elements are people to maintain and operate the hardware and logistic backup – spare parts, handbooks, technical schools, support equipment, etc”


(Part of the Manhattan Project – and he’s the man who “served as the weaponeer on the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki” – https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2005-dec-11-me-ashworth11-story.html )


Biography: http://www.americanveteranscenter.org/wp-content/uploads//2016/02/VADM-Frederick-Ashworth-Autobio_Part1.pdf

Bogdanov, 1912

Of course, there has been real interest of late in Tektology from Alexander Bogdanov, which Wikipedia states as “a discipline that consisted of unifying all social, biological and physical sciences by considering them as systems of relationships and by seeking the organizational principles that underlie all systems.” It would be very interesting to know if there was a direct equivalent of ‘systems thinking’ in there, since Tektology: Universal Organization Science was published in Russia between 1912 and 1917.understanding of wholes