Norbert Wiener papersCollection: Norbert Wiener papers | MIT ArchivesSpace
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Norbert Wiener papers
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Libraries. Department of Distinctive Collections
- Norbert Wiener papers
Scope and Contents of the Collection
The Norbert Wiener papers consist primarily of correspondence and manuscripts of writings by Wiener and by others. The collection spans the years 1898 to 1966 with the bulk of the material dating from 1910 to 1963.
From early childhood Wiener was perceived as exceptional, and this perception in part explains the large amount of material from his youth in the collection. Writings from his high school years and early correspondence with his family were retained and can be found in the collection.
In 1910, when Wiener was sixteen, he was away from his family for the first time. The correspondence between Wiener and his family began at this time, when he was attending Cornell University. He wrote his sisters and parents affectionate letters in Latin, German, French, and English while he was studying at Cornell and later at Cambridge University, the University of Göttingen, and Columbia University. The family letters continue during his first work experiences with the Encyclopedia Americana in Albany, New York, the University of Maine in Orono, and at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland where he worked for Oswald Veblen. These letters chronicle Wiener’s academic progress, interests, and perceptions of the places that he lived. There are few personal letters from Wiener to his family after 1926, the year of his marriage. While the collection does contain letters from his parents and sisters to Wiener, most are from Wiener to his family.
During his early years, most of Wiener’s letters were addressed to his father, Leo Wiener, and this correspondence shows the close relationship between father and son. Until Wiener entered high school, his father taught him, and Leo Wiener continued to play an influential part in his education and early professional life. Leo Wiener was a Harvard philologist and Wiener’s letters usually inquire about the progress of Leo Wiener’s latest project or ask advice for dealing with criticism of his father’s work. The letters also ask and comment upon advice from Leo Wiener. At the age of twenty-three, Wiener asked permission of his father to join the Army. It was due to his father’s suggestion that Wiener started to write popular as well as scientific articles (see letter of January 12, 1918).
Other material in the collection from Wiener’s childhood and youth further illustrates his intellectual development. Series 3 contains his senior essay from Ayer High School and some of his college notebooks. His earliest notebooks concern a variety of subjects yet they often have doodles and mathematical problems in them as well. A number of his graduate philosophy essays plus drafts and worksheets for his Harvard PhD thesis are also available. Published and unpublished articles written at Cambridge and Göttingen start to reflect Wiener’s transition from philosopher and logician to mathematician (Series 3). Other information about Wiener’s youth is in Series 2, which includes Army records, grades from Tufts College, and graduation programs from Ayer High School, Tufts, and Harvard.
Although the earliest records in the collection are letters from Wiener to his family, the letters from 1926 to 1934 are primarily from friends and colleagues to Wiener. From 1934 on, more copies of Wiener’s responses follow incoming letters so that the collection provides a more complete historical perspective.
During his post-graduate days at Cambridge University, Wiener started to correspond with his fellow students from Harvard and Cambridge, even though they were several years older. While in Cambridge he received a few letters from another Harvard philosophy fellow who was studying at Oxford, T. S. Eliot. Wiener also corresponded with some of his professors including Bertrand Russell and G. H. Hardy. For Wiener’s wedding present, another professor, E. V. Huntington, sent a “… set of postulates” (see letter of March 15, 1926, in folder 28).
The material added by the family in 1994 includes information about Margaret Wiener and family photographs.
In the correspondence dated 1920 and later, professional correspondence is dominant. Also, as Wiener’s scholarly reputation grew, the bulk of his correspondence increased. Because of his varied interests and worldwide travel, Wiener corresponded with a large community of scholars and scientists, often on a personal as well as a professional level. Prominent correspondents represented in the collection include Harald Bohr, Max Born, Jacob Bronowski, Albert Einstein, R. G. D. Richardson, J. D. Tamarkin, Piet Hein, Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, and Grey Walter. Because of the large number of prominent correspondents, a selective index is included in this finding aid.
Wiener’s development as a mathematician is illustrated in the correspondence and through Wiener’s writings. A December 1931 letter from J. D. Tamarkin, for example, discusses all the errors that Wiener made in his seminal work, “Tauberian Theorems.” The gradual development of information theory and cybernetics can be traced through letters from the 1940s, especially through correspondence with Arturo Rosenblueth, John von Neumann, Warren S. McCulloch and other investigators of the new science. The exchange of opinions on mathematical problems in Wiener’s correspondence sometimes served as a sounding board for future articles. While Wiener often worked alone, he also depended upon his colleagues’ ideas. The majority of Wiener’s collaborative efforts were with fellow mathematicians such as Aurel Wintner, Dirk Jan Struik, and Max Born. Wiener’s letters emphasize the fruitful results that occurred from the lengthy collaborations that he had with H. R. Pitt and R. E. A. C. Paley.
Wiener’s interest in applied mathematics and interdisciplinary science resulted in his collaboration with scientists in many fields. Series 3 contains some of the published and unpublished works that Wiener wrote with his colleagues, and Series 1 further documents his collaborative efforts. During World War II, Wiener worked with a young engineer, Julian Bigelow, for the National Defence Research Committee (NDRC) on a fire control apparatus for anti-aircraft guns, and some of their progress is documented in the correspondence for that period. After the war, Wiener’s work with biologists, physiologists, and other medical doctors, as well as with engineers, expanded. His best known work was with the noted physiologist Arturo Rosenblueth. The collection contains numerous letters between them and some of their writings including Dynamics of the Nervous System, an unpublished book (see folders 606-608). Series 1 and 3 also include material about encephalography from the work of Wiener and scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital such as Doctors John Barlow and Mollie Brazier. Wiener became increasingly involved in developing prosthetic devices with the help of his medical and engineering colleagues. Not all of Wiener’s collaborative efforts resulted in a joint paper; many of his individual speeches and articles depended upon information that he gained from others, a fact that Wiener always made clear.
Students and colleagues sent Wiener manuscripts and reprints of their own works in order to receive his opinion. These writings are in Series 4. Many of the scientists who collaborated with Wiener are represented in this section, for example, R. E. A. C. Paley, Pesi Masani, Walter Pitts, Joseph Doob, and Armand Siegel. Another way that Wiener expressed his opinion about his colleagues’ works was through the many book reviews he wrote (see Series 3).
While the collection does not contain all of Wiener’s written work, it has a great deal of the earliest and the latest work. The writings in Series 3 start to become sparse in the 1920s, and large gaps continue until 1948. Because approximately half of the writings were unpublished, a unique view of Wiener’s work is provided by the collection. The unpublished writings include various types of works, such as a lecture titled, “Mathematical Problems of Communication Theory” (folder 734), a speech on “The Computing Machine and Form (Gestalt)” (folder 665), and a memorandum on the scope of a suggested computing machine (folder 558). Further insights can be gained from the collection’s published works that progress from the early draft stage to the final reprint. The progression of Wiener’s theories can be interpreted throughout his writings. For example, after Cybernetics was published in 1948, cybernetics became a recurring topic in his writings, both in published articles and in unpublished speeches and articles. By 1952, Wiener was writing a treatise on cybernetics based upon the work that had been done in the area over the last five years (see folders 685 and 730). He was constantly called upon to define cybernetics, but his definitions did not remain static. The implications and applications of cybernetics expanded over the years, and in 1958 Wiener delivered a speech on “The Relation of Cybernetics to Semantics” (see folder 830).
Wiener’s involvement with interdisciplinary work at MIT started prior to his work in cybernetics. For instance, in a letter to Vannevar Bush he supports the idea of a cooperative scientific institute in the Boston area to be called the Institute for Exact Sciences, which would encompass physics, chemistry, mathematics, and astronomy (see letter of November 21, 1934). In 1941, Wiener was on the Supervisory Committee on the Research Center of Applied Mathematics (see folder 61). Wiener’s forty year career at MIT enabled him to delve into different areas. When Wiener was retiring in May 1960, he wrote to thank President Julius Stratton and stated that “everything that I have been able to accomplish has been accomplished here at M.I.T….” (see folder 281).
Wiener’s letters and writings show that he continually collaborated with students and faculty members at MIT. Wiener would offer ideas to the Institute’s engineering faculty, and they would attempt to apply them, often with good results. In 1950, Wiener mentioned in a speech that he was working on a prosthetic “hearing glove” with Jerome Wiesner. The mail response to this speech was overwhelming; however, Wiesner’s and Wiener’s work was not yet complete and never succeeded (see also folders 623 and 624). Because of Wiener’s close contact with his MIT colleagues, it must be presumed that some of his collaborative efforts do not appear in the collection. The collaborations were often casual and verbal. For example, one gap in the collection is the small number of letters and manuscripts that directly relate to Vannevar Bush’s and Wiener’s work in the ’20s on the Bush differential and analyzer.
His students also often helped Wiener with this scientific work, as the correspondence with Norman Levinson and Jerome Lettvin shows. Another illustration of his work with students can be seen in the extensive correspondence and patent information (Series 2) on the electrical network system developed by Wiener and Yuk Wing Lee. Wiener’s willingness to help his former students is also apparent in his correspondence. He gave advice and tried to find jobs for many of his students and young colleagues. A December 18, 1941, letter to the director of scientific personnel at the National Research Council suggested the development of more NDRC projects in order to utilize the talents of young mathematicians who were jobless. Some of his students eventually joined the MIT faculty; for example, Yuk Wing Lee, Norman Levinson, and Jerome Lettvin. The collection is remarkable for the view of Wiener’s personality that emerges. Wiener often exchanged ideas on non-scientific subjects with his colleagues in his correspondence. Wiener was increasingly alarmed by the world situation and his letters often reflect his concern. Before World War II, Wiener’s letters showed his efforts to place scholars who had lost their positions because of political and social unrest. Two examples are Antonio Zygmund and Yuk Wing Lee. He was a member of such organizations as the Emergency Committee in the Aid of Displaced German Scholars and the China Aid Society. He also wrote several essays about the predicament of German scholars (see especially folders 537 and 543).
After World War II, Wiener felt that many scientists were evading their responsibility to the modern world. He wrote to such friends as Arturo Rosenblueth and J. B. S. Haldane about these social problems. His letters show a consistent refusal to do any work that might be used by the military after the War. In addition, Wiener wrote popular articles about science and society. The best known article was “A Scientist Rebels” (see folder 573); it and similar articles evoked letters of support from both scientists and laymen.
Wiener’s concern with the ramifications of his scientific work was not limited to the military. He exchanged letters and met with Walter Reuther in order to discuss his fears of future unemployment when the automatic factory became operative. Articles that explained automatization and some of its social effects are also included in Wiener’s writings (Series 3). During his last fifteen years he became increasingly involved with the development of prosthetic devices and with other health-related problems. While refusing to work for the military, he was always ready to assist the Veteran’s Administration.
From the writing of “Unconventionality” (folder 494) in 1918 at his father’s suggestion, Wiener never gave up popular writing. Cybernetics had unexpectedly caught the public’s eye. Wiener’s correspondence markedly increased after its publication in 1948, and many letters were from strangers who wanted to know more about Wiener and his philosophy. This increase in “fan mail” was noted by his publishers who encouraged Wiener to write more popular articles and books. From the correspondence, it appears that Wiener enjoyed a friendly relationship with Henry Simon of Simon and Schuster and with Jason Epstein of Doubleday and Company, Inc. The collection contains book drafts from a number of his works, including The Human Use of Human Beings(folders 639-653a.) and an unpublished book called The Philosophy of Invention(folders 752-757).
Wiener was also interested in writing’s entertainment value. He wrote science fiction, novels and two autobiographies. Some of his ventures were not successful. He wrote to Orson Welles on June 28, 1941, suggesting a movie plot that was rejected but that eventually led to his own book The Tempter(folders 839-861). With Jason Epstein’s encouragement, Wiener and Isaac Asimov tried to write a science fiction story which never came to fruition.
Like all celebrities, Wiener received some crank mail and articles (see Series 4) from people who hoped that he shared their beliefs. The word that he coined, “cybernetics,” became vulgarized in the 1950s and Wiener was erroneously identified with social movements and thoughts that he knew nothing about. For example, many people thought that Wiener founded the Dianetics movement (which later became the Church of Scientology). The true founder, L. Ron Hubbard, did not discourage this belief for a while because Wiener was a valuable, albeit false, ally (see correspondence for 1950-1951). For the most part, Wiener’s “fan mail” consisted of letters of admiration to which Wiener often replied.
Materials received from Mrs. Margaret E. Wiener in 1971 consist of 35 volumes of foreign language editions of Wiener’s books, nine audio tapes of colloquiums and lectures given by Wiener; and a motion picture film of a Japanese television interview of Norbert and Margaret Wiener. See less
- 1898 – 1981
- Wiener, Norbert, 1894-1964 (Person)
Materials in this collection are open unless they are marked as restricted. Restrictions are noted in the container list.
Intellectual Property Rights
Access to collections in the Department of Distinctive Collections is not authorization to publish. Separate written application for permission to publish must be made to Distinctive Collections. Copyright of some items in this collection may be held by respective creators, not by the donor of the collection.
Norbert Wiener was a world renowned mathematician who was instrumental in the development of communication and control theories. He coined the word “cybernetics” to describe this new science.
There are a number of autobiographical and biographical sources available that provide an in-depth treatment of Wiener’s life. Because the bulk of the collection is arranged chronologically, a chronology of Wiener’s life is supplied in lieu of a…See more
1894 November 26Norbert Wiener was born in Columbia, Missouri to Bertha Kahn Wiener and Leo Wiener, a professor of foreign languages at the University of Missouri.1895The Wiener family moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Leo Wiener became a professor of Slavic languages at Harvard.1898Wiener’s sister Constance Wiener (Franklin) was born.1901Wiener entered the third grade at the Peabody School; after quickly advancing to the fourth grade, he was removed from the school by Leo Wiener. Except for this brief experience, Wiener was taught by his father until he entered high school.The Wiener family visited Europe.1902Wiener’s sister Bertha Wiener (Dodge) was born1903Wiener entered Ayer High School.1906Wiener graduated from Ayer High School and entered Tufts College where he studied mathematics and biology.1909Wiener received an AB degree, cum laude, from Tufts and entered Harvard Graduate School to study zoology.1910Wiener entered the Sage School of Philosophy at Cornell University with a scholarship. He studied with Frank Thilly, Walter A. Hammond, and Ernest Albee.1911Wiener transferred to Harvard Graduate School to study philosophy. He studied with Edward V. Huntington, Josiah Royce, G. H. Palmer, Karl Schmidt, and George Santayana.1912Wiener received an MA degree from Harvard.1913As a John Thornton Kirkland Fellow of Harvard, Wiener studied logic and philosophy with Bertrand Russell, G. H. Hardy, J. E. Littlewood, G. E. Moore, and J. M. E. MacTaggart at Cambridge University.Wiener received a PhD degree from Harvard.1914Wiener received the Bowdoin Prize from Harvard.As a Frederick Sheldon Fellow of Harvard, Wiener returned to Cambridge University to study mathematics and philosophy.Continuing as a Kirkland Fellow, Wiener studied mathematics with David Hilbert, Edmund Husserl, and Edmund Landau at Göttengen, Germany.1915Because of World War I, Wiener finished his year as a Sheldon Fellow at Columbia University where he studied philosophy and mathematics with John Dewey.1915-1916Wiener was appointed an assistant and a docent lecturer in Harvard’s Philosophy Department and lectured on the logic of geometry.1916Wiener served with Harvard’s reserve regiment at the Officer’s Training Camp in Plattsburg, New York1916-1917As an Instructor of mathematics, Wiener taught at the University of Maine in Orono.1917Wiener briefly worked as an apprentice engineer in the Turbine Department of the General Electric Corp. in Lynn, MassachusettsWiener served with the Cambridge ROTC.1917-1918Wiener was employed as a staff writer for the Encyclopedia Americana in Albany, New York1918Wiener was elected into the American Mathematical Society.As a civilian employee, Wiener worked on computations of ballistic tables for the US Army at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, under Oswald Veblen.1918-1919Wiener served as an Army private at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland.1919Wiener worked as a journalist with the Boston Herald.1919-1920Wiener received an appointment at MIT as instructor of mathematics.1920Wiener attended the International Mathematical Congress in Strasbourg as MIT’s representative and presented a paper on Brownian Motion. He also visited Cambridge and Paris.1922Wiener and Constance Wiener visited London and Paris.1924Wiener and Bertha Wiener visited Portiers and Germany.Wiener was promoted to assistant professor of mathematics at MIT.1925Wiener attended the International Mathematical Congress in Grenoble and the British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Southampton. He also visited with Richard Courant and Felix Klein in Göttingen.1926Maugeurite Engmann and Wiener were married and visited Switzerland and Italy.Wiener was made a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.1926-1927Wiener received a Guggenheim Fellowship to study in Göttingen and in Copenhagen, where he collaborated with Harald Bohr. He studied haphazard motion, periodogram analysis extensions of Fourier series and Fourier integral theory and taught a course on general trigonometry developments at Göttingen.1928Wiener spoke at the Symposium on Analysis Situs for the American Mathematical Society meeting.Wiener’s daughter Barbara was born.1929Wiener was promoted to associate professor of mathematics at MIT.Wiener’s daughter Margaret was born.1929-1930Wiener taught at Brown University as an exchange professor.1930-1936Wiener and Yuk Wing Lee developed and patented electrical network systems.1931-1932Wiener went to Cambridge University as a visiting lecturer; presented lectures on the Fourier Integral and its applications at Trinity College.1932Wiener was MIT representative at the International Congress of Mathematics, Zurich.Wiener was promoted to professor of mathematics at MIT.1933Wiener collaborated with R. E. A. C. Paley.Wiener began participation in interdisciplinary seminar group at Harvard Medical School.Wiener was awarded Bôcher Prize by the American Mathematical Society; lectured on Brownian Motion at the annual meeting. Wiener was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.The Fourier Integral and Certain of Its Applications was published.1934Wiener delivered the American Mathematical Society Colloquium Lectures at Williamstown, Massachusetts.Fourier Transforms in the Complex Domain was published.1935Wiener lectured at Stanford University and in Japan on his way to China.1935-1936Wiener was a visiting professor at Tsing Hua University in Peiping, China.1936Wiener attended the International Congress of Mathematicians in Oslo, Norway, and lectured on Tauberian Gap Theorems.1936-1937Wiener collaborated with Harry Ray Pitt at MIT.1937Wiener gave the Dohme lecture at Johns Hopkins on Tauberian Theorems.1938Wiener lectured on analysis at the Semi centennial of the American Mathematical Society.1940Wiener served as chief consultant in the field of mechanical and electrical aids to computation for the National Defence Research Committee.1940-1945Wiener was associated with the NDRC’s Office of Scientific Research and Development, Statistical Research Group and Operational Research Laboratory at Columbia University. He was part of an interdisciplinary team at MIT studying the mathematical aspects of guidance and control of anti aircraft fire. Wiener worked on the design of fire control apparatus for anti aircraft guns with Julian Bigelow.1941Wiener resigned from the National Academy of Sciences.1945Wiener collaborated with Arturo Rosenblueth at the Instituto National Cardiologia in Mexico and attended the Mexican Mathematical Society’s Conference held in Guadalajara.Wiener participated in a study group set up by John von Neumann and attended a meeting held in Princeton on communication theory.1946-1950Wiener and Arturo Rosenblueth received a five year Rockefeller Foundation Grant that allowed them to collaborate in Mexico and at MIT on alternating years.1946Wiener worked with Mark Kac and Arturo Rosenblueth at MIT.Wiener lectured at the National University of Mexico.Wiener attended the first three Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation Conferences and the Conference on Teleological Mechanisms sponsored by the New York Academy of Sciences.Wiener received an Honorary ScD degree from Tufts College.1947Wiener visited England and France and gave lectures on harmonic analysis in Nancy, France.Wiener collaborated with Rosenblueth at the Instituto Nacional de Cardiologia in Mexico.1948Wiener delivered a talk at the American Mathematical Society’s Second Symposium on Applied Mathematics.Cybernetics was published.1949Wiener delivered the American Mathematical Society’s Josiah Willard Gibbs Lecture at the annual meeting. Wiener collaborated with Rosenblueth in Mexico.Extrapolation, Interpolation, and Smoothing of Stationary Time Series with Engineering Applications was published.Wiener received the Lord & Taylor American Design Award.1950Wiener delivered a talk at the International Congress of Mathematicians at Harvard University.The Human Use of Human Beings was published. Wiener attended the Seventh Macy Conference.1951Wiener taught at the University of Paris, College de France, under a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship and gave lectures in Madrid.1951-1952Wiener collaborated with Rosenblueth in Mexico and received an honorary ScD degree from the University of Mexico.1952Wiener gave the Forbes Hawks lectures at the University of Miami.Wiener received the Alvarega Prize from the College of Physicians in Philadelphia.1953Wiener taught a summer school course with Claude Shannon and Robert Fano titled Mathematical Problems of Communications Theory.Wiener delivered lectures on the theory of prediction at the University of California at Los Angeles.Ex-Prodigy was published.1954Wiener taught summer course Mathematical Problems of Communication Theory again.Wiener went on a lecture tour of India and attended the Indian Science Congress in Hyderabad.1955-1956Wiener became a visiting professor at the Indian Statistical Institute in Calcutta.1956Wiener went on a lecture tour of Japan on his way back from India and then taught a summer school course at UCLA.I Am A Mathematician was published.1957Wiener was awarded the Virchow Medal from the Rudolf Virchow Medical Society.Wiener received an honorary ScD degree from Grinnell College.1958Wiener taught at the Varenna Summer School in Italy.Nonlinear Problems in Random Theory was published.1959The Tempter was published.Wiener was made an Institute Professor at MIT.Wiener taught a summer school course at UCLA.1960Wiener retired from MIT, becoming Institute Professor Emeritus.Wiener received the ASTME Research Medal.Wiener taught at the University of Naples in Italy and visited the United Soviet Socialist Republic.1961Wiener taught a summer school course at UCLA.Harmonic Analysis was published.1962Wiener delivered the Terry Lectures at Yale University; they were titled “Prolegomena to Theology.”Wiener taught at the Institute of Theoretical Physics, University of Naples, Italy.1963Wiener taught a summer school course at UCLA.1964He also lectured in Norway and Sweden.Wiener went to Amsterdam as a visiting professor and as the honorary head of Neurocybernetics at Netherlands Central Institute for Brain Research.Wiener received the National Medal of Science from President Johnson.God and Golem, Inc. was published (based upon the Terry Lectures).1964 March 18Wiener died in Stockholm, Sweden.1965God and Golem, Inc. received the National Book Award.1966Differential Space, Quantum Systems and Prediction was published.Activities
American Association of Arts and Sciences – Member
American Institute of Electrical Engineers – Applied Mathematics Subcommittee
American Mathematical Society – Council member, 1938; vice-president, 1936-1937
Appalachian Mountain Club – Member
Benjamin Franklin Fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce
Black Mountain College – Board of Trustees
College Entrance Examination Board – Commission on Examinations in Mathematics, 1934-1935
Econometric Society – Member
Friends of China – Advisory Board, 1935
International Association for Cybernetics – Member
International Congress of Mathematicians, 1940 – Organizing Committee, Committee on Invitation of Speakers and Head of Conference Committee in Probability and the Theory of Integration
International Congress of Mathematicians, 1950 – Organizing Committee and Entertainment Subcommittee
London Mathematical Society – Member
National Academy of Sciences – Member
New England Committee for Relief in China – Member
Union Matematica – Honorary president See less
30 Cubic Feet (71 manuscript boxes, 2 half manuscript boxes)