W. Grey Walter, Edmund C. Berkeley and the Toy Business

W. Grey Walter's early contact with Edmund C. Berkeley.

Who is Edmund C. Berkeley?
Probably more renowned for building what has been now considered as the first Personal Computer, called 'Simon' and construction details were published in Radio Electronics in 13 parts from 1950 to 1951. He wrote a book on computers called Giant Brains – or Machines That Think, and was the founder of the ACM (still aptly named i.e. Association for Computing Machinery).
He was also the instigator of Squee, another cybernetic animal. Berkeley was a true computing pioneer.

Berkeley first contacted Grey Walter after seeing the Scientific American article on "An Imitation of Life" (May 1950).

May 22 [ECB to WGW]
“I read with very great interest your article in the Scientific American for May called “An Imitation of Life.”  I should like very much to know more about your machina speculatrix, and to try to construct a similar machine. Could you please send me any reports, papers, or reprints which might help me? (You may be interested in the enclosed publisher’s notice of my book on machines that “think”).”

[RH Note: first mention of “Squee” is 1951. It appears ECB was inspired by WGW and built his own, more complicated but less sophisticated model. see Squee in a later blog.]

1950 June 29. [WGW (standard) response to ECB letter May 22.]
“Many thanks for your letter. I am glad that our experiments with Machine Speculatrix have interested you.
I fear that I cannot immediately comply with your request for further information since I have only the roughest notes and sketches, which would be quite unintelligible to anyone but myself. You will realise that these models were made in order to demonstrate certain principles which seem to underlie purposive and exploratory behaviour; insofar as they have succeeded their reason for existence has diminished.
I hope that the publicity which they have received will stimulate others not merely to emulate but to excel; the imitations of life can be as varied as life itself. However, there have been so many requests for further details that I feel almost obliged to prepare some working drawings which could help others over some of the less interesting technical difficulties, and make it easier for new gerera and species to be created.
I am afraid that it may be some time before I can get this done, since these experiments are a hobby rather than a part of my profession, but if you are still interested, I will let you know when I have something ready. It may be necessary to ask for what one might call a stud fee – but this should not amount to much.”

[Note: interesting reference to a "stud fee" . Ultimately these contributed towards the writing of "The Living Brain", in particular the appendices which describe in detail and provide circuit diagrams of M Speculatrix.]

1950 Jul 7 [from Berkeley to WGW]
Dear Dr. Walter:

Thank you very much for your letter of June 22 received today. I am enclosing a check for $5.00 as a partial “stud fee”, and am ready to send you more towards expenses, etc., of diagrams for M. Speculatrix. I am getting ready to undertake the construction of a mechanical turtle in order to put together an exhibit of little robots. The “schematic diagram and instruction sheet” mentioned in your letter of June 1   as perhaps ready in a “few weeks” would be a great help to me.

Ultimately it wasn't until the publication of The Living Brain that the diagrams became available, and you had to buy the book anyway.


July 13 ECB to HN – ECB spoken to WGW on recent visit to England and discussed possible manufacture of small robots.

April 6. WGW to ECB. First mention of  WGW setting up Scientoys with Vivien and Bunny to deal with Tortoises being manufactured by SMC.

June 10. ECB to WGW. Loan machine arrived at SMC.

July 6.
WGW response to general enquiry
“The only detailed description of the construction of these [machina speculatrix] and other of our machines is in my book, The Living Brain, published in the United States by Nortons in 1953. The information there is not really enough for constructional use, however, and there is a possibility that kits for this model will be available from Science Materials Center, ….”
Nov 14. Hy Rucklis {V-P of SMC} to WGW.
“Mr [Alfred] Bender [of SMC] succeeded in getting the robot to work by replacing the vacuum tube circuit with transistors. His circuit diagram is enclosed { not found in Berkeley archive, but in British Museum Burden archive-RH}. Under separate cover we are returning the robot with Mr. Bender’s changes. It works well, except for excessive vibration of one motor that effects the operation of the relay. I am quite sure that a new motor would solve this problem.  In my opinion the practicality of the project hinges on the possibility of reducing the weight of the device.     This would greatly reduce the size of the required motors and battery.
We should also consider replacing the storage battery with 110 Volt AC. This solves many problems. The very expensive battery would be eliminated. A simple rectifier circuit could supply current for the transistors. With this arrangement the cost of the robot would begin to approach a realistic level, and sales potential would be greatly increased. Additional advantages would be the elimination of the nuisance of frequent charging of the battery, and more consistent operation. The only disadvantage would be the fact that a wire would have to be attached to an outlet. This reduces to some extent the dramatic impact of the device. However, its use in schools for teaching the principles of reflex action would not be seriously affected.
The use of AC solves so many problems that I believe we should proceed to a new model on that basis. It may prove possible to introduce new kinds of circuits to illustrate conditioned reflex and perhaps other psychological principles, at a lowers cost than for a battery operated model without such circuits.
As arranged, I will wait on a new model from you before undertaking further development of the robot.”

Nov 28 [VW to ECB]
“…..He [Grey] will be most interested to hear of your recent work on the Tortoises, and he is eager for Mr. Warren (of the BNI) to see the transistorised tortoise which Mr. Ruchlis is working on, & I believe sending over here.
If you are interested in “Cora” [sic] ‘Neurisa’ the nerve which Grey had invented & used for lecturing he can let you have any information you require. …..”

RH Notes: 1). Interesting cross out of “Cora” and replaced by “Neurisa” the nerve.
Holland mentions “an electric model of nerve” quoting Walter – 1953 pp 284-286. See also Hayward p631 re naming of models and gender. Young’s book on Cybernetics also mentions NERISSA (Nerve Excitation, Inhibition, and Synaptic Analogue.)  – note different spelling.
2). Correspondence with Ray Cooper of the BNI states that WGW wife-swaps in 1960. Is this contributing to the beginning of the end re Scientoys?


Jan 19. Vivian Walter to Ed Berkeley – suggesting some “simple mechanical principles” which might be applied to scientific kits.  

This further suggests that Vivien too was directly involved and ‘hands-on’ with the developments of scientific models

Mar 1. Berkeley invites Ivan Sutherland to join Science Materials Center. Berkeley writes "We would like very much for you to be associated with us at Science Materials Center in one or more projects, including particularly to small robot project. …..we could draw on all of Grey Walter’s and all of your ideas and capacities, in order to produce small robots which would be of scientific value and instruction. I am sure that we need your help in addition to Grey Walter’s in order to make a resounding success of this project.”

[Note: I'll write about Ivan Sutherland separately in a later post – see here.]

No related further correspondence known of from the Ed Berkeley archive.

See other Grey Walter and his Tortoises posts here.

See other Cybernetic Creatures here.


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