1911 – Toy Beetle – Adolph Weigel – referenced by A.J. Lotka

When one reads through documents and histories on cybernetic and cybernetic models, one of the earliest models refered to is the Toy Beetle. The key reference is A. J. LOTKA. Elements of Physical Biology. Baltimore, 1925.
Normally you see it in simple diagrammatic form, but after many hours on patent search engines (pre Google patents at the time!!) I finally found it.

First of all, here's C. Judson Herrick's version of the Beetle and how his interpretation of it as a 'reflexive' machine or model.


Second Printing November 1029

CONTROL of events is the main business of all mechanisms. This control is exorcised in part upon what is going on outside control of
environment and in part upon the internal processes within the mechanism itself self-control. This applies throughout the mechanistic realm, and the fore. going chapters are full of illustrations of it.
The living body has greater capacity for self-regulation than any other kind of mechanism on earth. On a still bigger scale the astronomers give us equally impressive instances in their accounts of celestial mechanics.
The living body grows, it repairs its own wear, and it reproduces its kind. If mutilated, not too severely, it can repair the damage. A salamander or a crab can grow a new leg if one is cut off. Men cannot do that, but they can grow new nerves to supply sensibility and movement to an arm that has been paralyzed by cutting a nerve trunk, though this sometimes requires the help of a good surgeon.
The living body also in the course of time can change its own inherited pattern of internal organization in adjustment to changes going on in its surroundings. It makes itself over to suit new conditions. This is creative evolution.
These are the familiar properties common to all living bodies which set them off over against all nonliving mechanisms. They employ mechanistic principles in ways determined by their own organization, the same as other machines do in their own ways in each individual case. The efficiency of the vital processes may be measured in terms of the pattern of this control over the flux of energy and material which is exercised by the living body.
The apparatus of control is familiar to us in all inorganic machines. The "controller" of a street car enables the motorman to make the car do what he wants it to all the time. This is because the workings of the internal mechanisms of the car are controlled by the levers under the motorman's hand. The controls of an airplane or an automobile work the same way. This control which is exercised from the outside works out properly because the internal mechanisms of control are appropriately designed and constructed.
Many people think the human body is controlled this way from the outside. This is not necessarily true, for much machine control is wholly automatic. I t works without a motorman or a pilot; it is wholly internal. A big gyroscope may stabilize a battleship wholly by internal control. A typecasting machine when once started goes on about its very complicated business of turning out a's or b's all day long without any supervision by the operator.
A well-known mechanical toy described by Lotka is made in the form of a beetle which when wound up will move in a straight line across the table. It
"walks" on two toothed wheels, one of which is an idler while the other is rotated by the spring (Fig. 8). In front of these there is a third toothed wheel smaller than the others and placed at right angles to them, transversely to the direction of forward movement. This wheel is running idly until the toy approaches the edge of the table.
The beetle has a pair of feelers projecting forward. One of these has. a curved tip which slides along the
FIG. 8.-Diagram of toy beetle. (From Lotka's Physical Biology, by courtesy of Williams & Wilkins Co., 1925.)

Toy Beetle
Toy Beetle

table top. Having reached the edge of the table, this tip drops down and allows the front end of the toy to drop a little because this end was formerly held up by contact of the feeler with the table. When the head of the beetle is lowered in this way the small transverse wheel comes in contact with the table. This makes the toy turn and changes the direction of movement until it runs parallel with the table edge. It is kept in this direction by the curved feeler whose tip is dropped over the edge and so prevents the beetle from turning farther away from the edge.
This little automaton has a sense organ or "feeler" which warns the mechanism of the approach to the edge of the table. Then the internal control apparatus operates reflexly to change the direction of locomotion so that the machine is not wrecked by falling off the edge. The design is clever and very simple.
This toy automatically controls its own behavior so as to avoid self-destruction by falling over a precipice. Many of the tropisms (turnings) of lower animals and many of the reflexes of our own bodies are equally automatic. Their machinery is much more complicated but in some of these cases it is understood nearly as completely as we know the apparatus that controls the movements of the toy beetle.
One of our most complete accounts of these is Sherrington's study of the scratch reflex of the dog. A flea-bite anywhere in the "receptive field" that can be reached by the dog's hind leg calls forth a scratching of the exact spot bitten in a very precise way. The details of what happens and of the mechanism that is working are very minutely and accurately described. The nerve centers involved are in the spinal cord. The brain has nothing to do with it.
This reflex in its simplest unconditioned form is wholly unconscious. Of course, consciousness of what is going on may be added, and in this case the brain is linked up with the spinal cord and an additional cerebral mechanism is now called into play. I may, for instance, teach the dog not to scratch in the house. The unconditioned reflex is checked by training, that is, it is conditioned by memory of previous experience of punishment or scolding, so that now the dog either endures the irritation stoically or else goes out of doors to scratch.
The mechanisms employed in these tropisms and unconditioned reflexes differ from those of our toy beetle not only in being much more complex, but also in the way in which they were made. The toy was designed by an ingenious mechanic and was manufactured as a commercial enterprise. The idea is so clever that one hopes the inventor made a lot of money out of it.
The live beetle grew into its present form naturally. It can control its behavior so as to take care of itself in more different ways than the toy, and it was designed by a natural process that we call "organic evolution." It made itself and it runs itself. This ground we have already covered. Biological control of behavior is self-control from start to finish.
Of course this power of self-control is not unlimited either in the case of the toy beetle or of the live one. The toy beetle's control is limited to making only one kind of a turning in one particular situation, that is, at the edge of the table. The live beetle can make many kinds of turnings or tropisms. These have been accurately described and shown to follow their stimuli mechanistically. The mechanism is correspondingly more complicated. But the live beetles cannot control their behavior well enough to avoid destruction in countless numbers by the ordinary hazards of their precarious existence.
All of the different kinds of tropism that the live beetle shows can be imitated by mechanical or scien-
tific toys, and have been turning toward or away from the light (phototropism), turning toward or
away from particular chemical substances (chemo-tropism), and all the rest. But nobody has ever as-
sembled all of these in one machine as they are in life.
On the other hand, the behavior which expresses
p312. itself as biological reproduction has not been duplicated by any man-made machine. We have not learned how to do it, and present indications are that we are not likely to for a long time to come. Live beetles and all other living things can do it and have been doing it for hundreds of millions of years. We have not yet learned how to control vital processes so completely as to be able to make a live animal out of dead stuff the way God is said to have done in the Garden of Eden, though the newspapers insist on ascribing such marvelous powers to eminent biologists every now and then.
Yet we can control the course of events in living bodies in ways that are very useful to us. And the more we learn about vital processes and their mechanisms the greater is our ability to control the course of life in our animal neighbors and in ourselves. "As the twig is bent the tree is inclined." We can bend the twig. We do this with children too. That is why we send them to school.
We can control the course of heredity in any animal or plant stock in a large variety of ways. This is how faster race horses, better milch cows, fatter pigs, and hardier grains have actually been created by agriculturists. This means that we can control the course of evolution, for many of these artificially produced strains breed. true and when they are thoroughly bred into a stock we have a new species. This is the way new species are made in nature, and natural species endure as long as the conditions that called them forth endure. Artificially created species may also persist as long as the conditions devised for their production are maintained.
The ancients taught that the control of human destiny rests in the lap of the gods. We believe now (most of us) that part of it rests with us. It is ours if we will reach out and take it. Some control of the courses of our lives is our natural birthright. This we share with all animal kind, but we do it differently from other animals.
In human control, whether of our environment or of our own behavior, we must recognize that mental acts with the related bodily changes are the most significant features of the causal complex that is operating. Man controls his environment by the same biological methods that ants and beavers do, and he carries the process much farther by new methods of intelligent observation and experiment. He also has himself under better control, again partly by reflex and other unconscious mechanisms and partly by intelligent attention to it.
The mechanisms of conscious control are so different from those of all kinds of unconscious control that very different results are secured. When the mechanisms of consciousness reach the grade of organization that permits the formation of general ideas and of ideals of future conduct, these ideals of what I want to do, to be, and to become are causative factors in determining what I do now.
I now shape my present conduct in view of possible future events and in view of the effect which my present act may have on the future. I see several ways of reacting to the request of a friend for the loan of five dollars and my decision whether to accommodate him or not is based on my look into the future. Will I
p314 have enough left to see me through to pay day? Will he be able to pay me back? Will he actually want to pay the debt when he gets his own pay check or will he be more likely to spend it for a week-end at the country club?
This conscious forecast of the future effect of a present action is certainly a causative factor in determining whether I lend the money or keep it. It is a function of my brain, and the decision arrived at is the result of countless causal factors in the situation, some of which are unconscious and some deliberate intelligent judgments. It is mechanistically determined and yet it is a real choice. The fact that I know why I choose one or the other ways of deciding the question, this knowledge and this prevision of consequences, are by no means negligible by-products of the situation. They are the key-factors, and they set this kind of a choice over against that of a locomotive which when the switch is turned leaves the main track to enter a siding and does not know anything about it.
This intelligent choice is not an uncaused action, and yet the choice or decision that I make is far removed indeed from all forms of unconscious adaptive behavior. A weather vane turns with the wind. It has no choice in the matter. A moth flies into the candle flame and sears its wings. It apparently has no choice about it; its phototropisms work this way. automatically. Under natural conditions these tropisms work out beneficially more often than injuriously. If it were not so the tropism would not be there, for the individuals having the destructive tropisms would all be killed off without propagating
p315 their kind. Candle flames are not the sort of hazards to which a moth has to adjust in the natural environment within which the tropism was established.
We have only to recognize that thinking in general and especially thinking ahead and planning for the future are natural functions of my body to see that this foresight is one of the causes which determines my present behavior when I am asked for a loan of five dollars. There is nothing unnatural about my ability to do this. It would be unnatural for a moth to do it because the insect has not my kind of a brain. He has not the mechanism for foresight and for my kind of a choice.
In every case where there is conscious foresight of the probable results of an action this mental act becomes a causal factor in the present behavior and the total situation is radically changed. It is now a choice as we ordinarily use the word. This act is purposive or intentional, while that of the weather vane or moth is not. And yet it is not uncaused.
Right here is where many people are likely to jump the track in following this line of thought. They have always considered purpose, choice, self-control, and character-building as implying some mystical and unnatural powers that cannot be fitted into a mechanistic scheme, and they are unable to use these words at all without loading them with some supernatural implication.
But it is a fact that we do make decisions and choices and that we make them in view of the probable effects of the choice upon future events. There is nothing supernatural about this. Now having shown that every choice is a natural function of a natural
p316 body and that it has causes and results, that it is part of the mechanistic system, we have not changed in the least the enormous difference between the unconscious tropism or reflex and the conscious choice made deliberately with foresight of its probable consequences. Nor have we altered the fact that these conscious choices give us humans an apparatus of control of conduct that none of the beasts possess. The beasts do not make our kind of choices and so they cannot show our kind of control of present and future conduct.
It seems to be quite impossible to get some people to see this simple fact. We are so accustomed to think of choice or purpose as due to the intervention of some external and unnatural mystic power, a "spirit" or ghost, that we cannot use these words at all without immediately invoking magic, some undefined power that breaks into the natural causal sequence and disrupts it.
Now, of course, the author might meet this inveterate tendency of people to clothe his words with mystical meanings, which he has expressly and most emphatically disclaimed and excluded, by avoiding altogether the words "choice," "self-control," and the like and using some more vague circumlocution. But why do this? Why say "electron-proton interaction" when you mean choice ? Choice is a perfectly definite thing. We all know what the word means because we all make choices every day of our lives.
Though these common human choices and purposes are not uncaused, they are nevertheless really different from the discriminative reactions of toy beetles, moths, and human reflexes. There is a mech-
ansim working in each case. The mechanisms are different and the control of behavior effected is correspondingly different. Our choices are real choices, and they are our choices, choices made by our bodies, not by some mystic power that controls us from the outside the way the motor car is controlled by the driver.
Prevision of future contingencies, then, does actually participate in the control of human conduct in a natural way. It is a determining factor in what I do now. Indeed, it may go further than this. I may foresee the effect of the choice, not only on the course of outside events and the actions of other people, but also on my own character, my own inner nature. I may need that five dollars myself and I may have serious doubts whether my impecunious friend will ever be able to pay it back. Nevertheless I may lend the five to him with a smiling face and mentally kiss it goodbye. Not perhaps because he is really in hard luck and I am sorry for him, but because of its effect on myself. I have noticed a tendency to become closefisted and selfish. It will be good for me to loosen up a bit and give my generous impulses a little exercise.
Here is conscious, deliberate effort directed toward a change, not in my environment, not in the interest of my bank account, but in my personality, my character. Without thinking it out very critically perhaps, I am nevertheless really changing myself�for the better, I hope. And I am doing it with my eyes open. I have already some ideals of what kind of a man I want to be. I have decided that I do not want to be a tight-wad. Occasionally yielding to a generous im-
pulse gives me more pleasure than a fat bank account. I recognize this and I deliberately cultivate generosity.
The laws of cause and effect have not been violated, but they are certainly working in a very different way from that which we see in the locomotive when it takes the siding or in the unconscious conditioning of reflexes in a worm or a rat. Both the unconscious and the purposeful exercises are creative. Both create habits, in the one case blindly, in the other intentionally. What is the difference? The difference between a cog in a tiny wheel of the toy beetle and the intelligent designer and maker of that clever mechanism.
Our toy beetle exhibits real internal control of behavior. The live beetle more of the same and better control. I myself control my own behavior mechanistically just as truly as the toy. The range of that control is greater. I can reach out more widely into my environment and make it useful to me in more ways than the toy or the live insect can do. I can even reach out in imagination into the future and use possible contingencies as causal factors in shaping present conduct. And in the course of this adjustment to environment I can change my own inner nature and control the course of my own future growth in knowledge and character as the toy cannot do at all and as the insect can do very little. Yet the control is as natural and as lawfully systematic a process in my own case as in the others. The laws are different and so the results are different.
Since mental acts are natural functions of our natural bodies, they are real determiners of conduct and character the same as are all the rest of our acts. They are part of the biological machinery of regulation and control as truly as are our reflexes. Self-control by voluntary effort is a bodily act; hence it can be strengthened and cultivated by training as truly as muscular control in riding a motor-cycle can be trained, and for the same reason. It is the body that is trained in both cases.
This control is worth something to us. It is worth cultivating and it can be cultivated. Do not let anyone swindle you out of it by claiming that it is a myth or by trying to foist upon you some makeshift substitute warranted to be just as good and easier to live up to. It isn't. Nothing can replace it without sacrifice of your birthright as a human being. It is the most real and valuable bodily function that you have. It is worth holding on to and working for with all your might. There is nothing magical about it. It is bodily work, and hard work. It tires you out more completely than anything else you can do.
JOHN DEWEY. Human Nature and Conduct. New York, 1927.
R. G. GORDON. Personality. New York, 1926.
A. J. LOTKA. Elements of Physical Biology. Baltimore, 1925.
C. S. SHERRINGTON. The Integrative Action of the Nervous System. New York, 1906.

Here's the patent diagram:

U.S. Patent No 1,017,066

Toy Beetle
Toy Beetle

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