Posts Tagged ‘Norbert Wiener’

1949 – Wiener’s Moth “Palomilla” – Wiener / Wiesner / Singleton

Wiener's/Wiesner's/Singleton's 'Moth' – why so many names attached?

(extract from below)

Wiener wanted the theories put to a practical test. In the late 1940s he teamed up with Dr. J. Wiesner, then in the Research Laboratory of Electronics, and later to become the president of MIT, to build a demonstration-machine with two feedbacks that would play a purposive and postural role, respectively, and exhibit the two types of tremors known to physiologists.
The machine they built, with help from H. Singleton, was a small tricycle cart, with two photocells facing front, one on the right side and one on the left. The output from the cells, after amplification, reaches the tiller controlling the front steering wheel. Depending on the direction of the output voltage, the cart is steered either towards or away from the quadrant with more intense lighting, thus behaving either like a "moth" or like a "bedbug". In either case it acts like a purposive mechanism, either pro- or anti-phototropic. The feedback involved, from light source to cell to tiller, and back, is voluntary, for "voluntary action is essentially a choice among tropisms" [56g, p. 166]. When the amplification is increased, however, the feedback becomes excessive, and forces the cart to overdo its movements, thereby getting it into oscillation, as in purpose or intention tremor.
Also built into the cart was a secondary feedback attached to the tiller, and so arranged that it could be overloaded even with little or no output from the photo cells. In the absence of light this became excessive and the tiller started oscillating. This secondary feedback played a postural role, and the second tremor exemplified Parkinsonianism.
This tiny "moth-bedbug" somehow drew the attention of the United States Medical Corp. They photographed its tremors in order to compare their profiles with those of human tremors, and so enhance the knowledge of army neurologists.

(next two photo's are sourced from Google images, Source:life)

 At first glance the trace appears somewhat confusing. There's 2 traces, one starts and stops. The other appears as if the cart (in moth-mode) is bouncing off the corridor walls. The photo shows the cart before the trace, so it is travelling away from you (ie up the page).
This is what you are really observing:  The 'thinner' trace starting in the  middle of the photo is someone holding a torch, then they move backwards down the corridor going from side to side with the cart following suit. Other than using the cart for studing oscillations/tremors, it wasn't real exciting in my opinion. Bedbug-mode added another dimension, but not much really.  Possibly why Wiener failed to see, or look for and understand the difference between his and W. Grey Walter's tortoises.

Update: 28 Apr 2010 – More images of cart

 From Wiener’s “the human use of human beings”….  (1950 ed.)

I have recently received a letter from Dr. Grey Walter of the Burden Neurological Institute at Bristol, England, in which he expresses interest in ’the moth’ or ‘bedbug,’ and in which he tells me of a similar mechanism of his own, which differs from mine in having a determined but variable purpose. In his own language, ‘We have included features other than inverse feedback which gives to it an exploratory and ethical attitude to the universe as well as a purely tropistic one.’  The possibility of such a change in behavior pattern is discussed in the chapter of this book concerning learning, and this discussion is directly relevant to the Walter machine, although at present I do not know just what means he uses to secure such a type of behaviour. The moth and Dr Walter’s further development of a tropism machine seen to be at first sight exercises in virtuosity, or at most, mechanical commentaries to a philosophical text.’

Later, from Weiner’s expanded 1952 edition

“here let me mention some earlier machines of Dr. Walter, somewhat similar to my ‘moth’ or ‘bug,’ but which were built for a different purpose. For these phototropic machines, each element carries a light so that it can stimulate the others. Thus a number of them put into operation at the same time show certain groupings and mutual reactions which would be interpreted by most animal psychologists as social behaviour if they were found encased in flesh and blood instead of brass and steel. It is the beginning of a new science of mechanical behaviour even though almost all of it lies in the future."

"The Way Things Work" 1969 (Translated from the German)


The interactions between the external world and the actions of a human being who receives information about that world through the senses can be understood with the aid of the concepts and principles of cybernetics. This is illustrated by a simple experiment that we can perform for ourselves. I place an object —a pencil, for example — on the table and then pick it up. I perceive the position of the pencil through my sense of sight. This visual information is transmitted through nerves to the appropriate centre in my brain, where it is "processed," and whence the necessary instructions to grasp the pencil are issued, through other nerves, to the muscles of my arm and hand. In performing this action, the movements of the arm are monitored by the eyes and optimally guided. When I close my eyes, this monitored guidance of my movements is absent. My hand now no longer goes unerringly to the pencil, but has to grope about until the pencil reveals itself to another of my senses, namely, the sense of touch. This experiment shows that the control exerted over these movements through visual feedback is much more effective than the control provided by tactile feedback. The latter is in fact so poor that my hand does not perform a direct movement at all, but oscillates about while seeking the pencil. This illustrates the typical behavior of a control loop with a very low degree of feedback: it oscillates. Thus we here have a process eminently suited for study by the methods of information theory, or cybernetics. But the transmission of sensory stimuli by the nervous system is not merely a process formally describable in terms of information theory; it is also, in reality, a form of electrical transmission. The sensory nerve cells, for example, in the eye or ear, receive a stimulus from the external world. This stimulus is converted into an electrical potential and is transmitted, in the form of impulses, to the next nerve cell. The whole nervous system is composed of nerve cells (neurons) which are its structural and functional units.
Each neuron consists of the cell-body, a single long nerve fibre (axon), which carries impulses away from the cell-body, and a number of short dendrites, which receive impulses from the axons of other neurons. The axon, which is the actual information channel, may be several feet in length and has a diameter of about 0.0001 cm (0.00004 inch). The cell-body itself may be compared to an amplifier with two states of equilibrium. It can be either in the state of rest or in the working state, operating in the manner of a relay with an "off" and an "on" position. The state of the cell at any given instant, therefore, corresponds to a binary digit or bit. The extremity of the axon terminates at a dendrite, or at the cell-body of the next neuron. At the actual junction, the current path is interrupted by a discontinuity called the synapse, which is comparable to a toroidal transformer that serves as a galvanic separation between transmission channels and forms an inductive connection between them. Inside the synapse, a form of electrolytic transmission takes place, the actual "gap" being approximately a hundred-thousandth of a millimetre wide. At the synapse, the impulse is passed on by acetylcholine, a substance that is secreted there and which stimulates the adjacent neuron. Like every flip-flop circuit, the neuron, too, has a relaxation time, that is, it requires a certain length of time before it is ready to respond to another impulse. In physiology this is known as the refractory period, and it is of the order of 0.5 to 1 millisecond.
The velocity of propagation of an impulse in a nerve cell is approximately 120 m/sec. (400 ft./sec.), corresponding to about one-third of the velocity of sound. A number of neurons serving as successive amplifier cells are connected between the receptor (sense-organ, such as eye, ear, and so on) and the brain. The resting potential has a negative value: approximately -60 to -80 millivolts; the action potential is positive: +90 to +100 millivolts. The axons, often as many as two or three thousand, are grouped together in bundles (the nerves), which resemble cables and form complex intermeshed and interlinked networks. The intermeshing ensures that the sensory stimuli are transmitted not just by one nerve, but by a number of nerves, so that the error rate is reduced, and transmission to the brain and central nervous system is duly achieved. These analogies with electrical transmission systems constitute a highly schematized interpretation of the actual physiological process. Nevertheless, such considerations have yielded valuable insight into the precise location of nervous diseases—something that had not previously been ascertainable by other means. It has thus been possible to distinguish whether a disease is in the peripheral nervous system, that is, the nerves that carry the information to the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), or in the central nervous system itself.
We have already referred to the act of picking up an object with our eyes open, that is, with a high degree of feedback, and with our eyes closed, so that visual control is lacking and oscillatory groping movements are performed in order to locate the object. Such lack of control also manifests itself as a disease condition known as intention tremor. The patient, wishing to extend his hand and grasp an object, finds that his hand trembles and sways to and fro, so that he cannot correctly bring it into position to grasp the object. There is, however, another form of pathological tremor, called Parkinson's disease in which the behavior pattern is roughly the opposite to that associated with intention tremor. This disease, which generally occurs late in life, is characterized by tremors, particularly when the patient is at rest. In the earlier stages of the disease, the tremors cease when voluntary movements are performed; later they occur at all times except during sleep. In the case of intention tremor, there is evidently a disturbance in the feedback and thus in the brain's response to the sensory messages it receives. The disease is therefore located in the brain, whereas in Parkinson's disease the defect is in the nerves that transmit the feedback impulses.
On the basis of these cybernetic considerations, it is possible to devise an apparatus that demonstrates the typical behavior patterns associated with the two diseases just referred to. It consists of a small, three-wheeled carriage whose rear axle is driven by an electric motor. The front wheel is steerable. The carriage is provided with a pair of photo-electric cells directed obliquely forward and arranged in a bridge circuit. The bridge voltage is proportional to the difference in the intensity of the light entering the two photo-electric cells, and it can have its polarity reversed before being fed to an amplifier. Through this amplifier, the bridge voltage is used to drive a small motor that controls the sliding contact of a potentiometer. A second sliding contact of the same potentiometer is connected to the steerable front wheel by means of a lever the movements of which are controlled by a second small motor. This motor is driven, through an amplifier, by the voltage difference between the two sliding contacts. Depending on the polarity of the bridge voltage, the carriage will either seek the light (positive phototropism) or shun it, (negative phototropism). According to which of the two behavior patterns is displayed, the device can be said to behave like a "moth" (attracted to light) or like a "bedbug" (repelled by light). The circuit in which the photo-electric cells, the bridge, the first amplifier, and the first control motor are located corresponds to the transmission path of the stimulus through the nerves and the associated part of the brain. The second circuit, which is actuated by the voltage difference of the potentiometer and which ultimately manipulates the steering lever through the agency of the second control motor, corresponds to the feedback path. Disturbances in the two circuits may produce oscillations, in which case the steering lever will swing to and fro. When there are disturbances in the first circuit, the behavior will correspond to intention tremor, while disturbances in the second circuit cause a behavior pattern corresponding to Parkinson's disease in human beings. We must not, however, make the mistake of supposing that this model accurately simulates actual physiological behavior. The latter is a much more complex process. Yet the schematization, adopted for the purpose of the cybernetic interpretation, does reflect the significant features of the symptoms of these diseases.

p210 Chapter 15 Arturo Rosenblueth and Wiener's Work in physiology 15G Animal feedback. Moth-cum-bedbug. 

G Voluntary, postural and homeostatic feedback. The moth-cum-bedbug
Perhaps the most important benefit that Wiener derived from his sustained contacts with Rosenblueth was his understanding of the complexity of feedback in the animal. From these contacts Wiener learned of the classification of such feedback into (1) voluntary, (2) postural and (3) homeostatic. Voluntary feedback is the primary one employed in fulfilling a task, and the one by which we gauge by means of sense organs the extent of the task that has not been accomplished. Postural feedback is an auxiliary feedback for the maintenance of internal tone (tonus) and involves kinesthetic organs. More fully,
… In order to accomplish a purpose successfully, the various joints which are not directly associated with purposive movement must be kept in such a condition of mild tonus or tension, that the final purposive contraction of the muscles is properly hacked up. In order to do this, a secondary feedback mechanism is required, whose locus in the brain does not seem to be the cerebellum, which is the central control station of the mechanism which breaks down in intention tremor. This second sort of feedback is known as postural feedback. [50j, p. 164]
Whereas purpose tremor (which appears only in activity) stems from excessive voluntary feedback located in the cerebral cortex, the complementary disease, Parkinsonianism (in which tremor exists only during inactivity), stems from ineffective postural feedback located in the brain stem. Wiener gave a mathematical explanation of why the stability of a servomechanism composed of many parts requires more than one feedback [61c, pp. 106-110]. He found that ". . The sum of different operators.each of which may be compensated as well as we wish by a single feedback cannot itself be so compensated" [61c, p. 106]. An important example of an inanimate system controlled by double feedback is the automatic steering of a ship by means of the gyrocompass. The motion of a hand or a finger "involves a system with a large number of joints"; its stability requires both voluntary and postural feedback, the latter for the maintenance of tone in the muscular system.
Finally, there is homeostatic feedback, designed to maintain steady metabolism, respiration and the like, and to keep crucial parameters, such as body temperature, within intervals of safety. These feedbacks occur by slow transmission along the (nonmyelinated) fibers of the automonic nervous system. Some of the messages go via non-nervous channels, e.g. hormone transmission by blood circulation. Associated with such feedback are the homeostatic diseases, like leukemia, where often
what is a fault is not so much an absence of all internal control over the process of corpuscle formation and corpuscle destruction but a control working at a false level. [56g, p. 292]
The homeostatic feedback is discussed in Cybernetics [61c, pp. 114-115], and the mathematical theory of feedback systems, including the role of anticipatory and lagging feedback, is discussed further in the same chapter of the book.
These theories on feedback and its excesses had their inception in the question that Wiener and Bigelow had asked Rosenblueth in the course of their war work in 1942, (cf. § 15B). Although mathematically feasible, their implementation in natural mechanisms was largely conjectural. Wiener wanted the theories put to a practical test. In the late 1940s he teamed up with Dr. J. Wiesner, then in the Research Laboratory of Electronics, and later to become the president of MIT, to build a demonstration-machine with two feedbacks that would play a purposive and postural role, respectively, and exhibit the two types of tremors known to physiologists.
The machine they built, with help from H. Singleton, was a small tricycle cart, with two photocells facing front, one on the right side and one on the left. The output from the cells, after amplification, reaches the tiller controlling the front steering wheel. Depending on the direction of the output voltage, the cart is steered either towards or away from the quadrant with more intense lighting, thus behaving either like a "moth" or like a "bedbug". In either case it acts like a purposive mechanism, either pro- or anti-phototropic. The feedback involved, from light source to cell to tiller, and back, is voluntary, for "voluntary action is essentially a choice among tropisms" [56g, p. 166]. When the amplification is increased, however, the feedback becomes excessive, and forces the cart to overdo its movements, thereby getting it into oscillation, as in purpose or intention tremor.
Also built into the cart was a secondary feedback attached to the tiller, and so arranged that it could be overloaded even with little or no output from the photo cells. In the absence of light this became excessive and the tiller started oscillating. This secondary feedback played a postural role, and the second tremor exemplified Parkinsonianism.
This tiny "moth-bedbug" somehow drew the attention of the United States Medical Corp. They photographed its tremors in order to compare their profiles with those of human tremors, and so enhance the knowledge of army neurologists.

 CHALLENGE: I have found an entry of a 1955 film that contains, amongst other things, some footage on Wiener's "moth" and Shannons "mouse". It probably needs someone operating in a campus and/or living in America to seek this out further. A video clip would be nice to add to this post.

Search MIT Barton libraries

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Automation.
Publisher: New York : CBS Television : Made by Information Production, 1955.
Series: The search 
Edition/Format: Film : Picture : English
Summary: A tour of laboratories pioneering the development of robot machines designed to take over some of the work once performed exclusively by human beings.

Material Type: Film, Picture
Document Type: Visual material
OCLC Number: 225919358
Notes: Note: Censorship classification for mature audiences.
Description: 28 min. : sd., b&w. orig 16mm. Produced by CBS Television.
Series Title: The search

Update: Jan 2010

Perhaps the most peculiar revival was a 1950 production that was staged at the behest of MIT professor Norbert Wiener-the pioneering researcher who created the field of cybernetics. Wiener saw the play as an opportunity to deliver a lecture on his theories and introduce the media to his box-and-wheels robot creation, "Palomilla." Unfortunately, his message was somewhat overshadowed by the stumblings of the young MIT engineers turned thespians. The Harvard Crimson wrote:

Deus ex Machina
By Paul W. Mandel,
Published: Wednesday, May 10, 1950
Last Friday and Saturday, M.I.T.'s "Dramashop" produced Karel Capek's "R.U.R."–Rossum's Universal Robots–at Boston's Peabody Playhouse. Capek's play, which describes a future society dominated by robots, has been repeated reasonably often during the last 20 years; it was a logical choice for a robot-minded group of students. "R. U. R." suffered from the stock-in-trade faults of amateur theater. The flats fell down backstage, and the actors blew their lines. The important last act of the play was omitted for simplicity. What made the Dramashop's "R.U.R." far more interesting than standard stuttering two-night drama was its prologue, written and read by Professor Norbert Wiener.
Professor Wiener, like Capek, has thought and written about the influence of the machine on society. In his prologue, Wiener pointed out that Capek was mistaken in postulating a society based on universal robots, that we were leaning more to specialized machines that faithfully perform specific tasks.
Then the professor turned towards one wing of the Peabody's tiny stage, clapped, and commanded: "Here, Palomilla!" Palomilla nosed out from behind a curtain, a buzzing four-wheeled cart which doggedly trailed a flashlight held by Wiener's assistant. Palomilla made mistakes; it ran back into the curtain once and stalled often. But it acted with at least as much decision and far more speed than an earthworm.
When Palomilla had crept offstage, Professor Wiener pointed out that "this is a simple animal," and described some of Palomilla's more modern descendents. Then he leaned over at the audience and said the time was gone when we could afford to make machines for the sake of making machines, that to avoid a society of "R.U.R." we would have to start worrying about the moral value of the machines, deciding whether they were good or bad. "The engineer must become more and more a poet," said Professor Wiener, and Palomilla buzzed once more, quietly, behind its curtain.

palomilla – feminine noun – grain moth (insecto)

Images below most likely from the MIT "Dramashop" 1951. "Palomilla" was probably the cart's stage-name. 

The Photo-cells are fixed, effectively on each front corner of the cart, so Wiener shines the torch not in the animal's "eyes" in its steerable head, but on it's "shoulder" instead.

See video clip below 1min in for 25 seconds.

W. Grey Walter and Norbert Wiener

WGWdeLatilp1 In

Owen Holland’s original paper "Legacy…." , he gives a description of Grey’s first impression of him …

  "Walter’s own view of Wiener can be seen in a letter to Professor Adrian in 1947: We had a visit yesterday from a Professor Wiener, from Boston. I met him over there last winter and find his views somewhat difficult to absorb, but he represents quite a large group in the States, including McCulloch and Rosenblueth. These people are thinking on very much the same lines as Kenneth Craik did, but with much less sparkle and humour."  Walter, W. G. 1947 Letter from Grey Walter to Professor Adrian, 12 June 1947. BNI Papers, Science Museum.    

Unfortunately you are left with that as a lasting impression, and nothing could be further from the truth. They ended up being great friends, and I’ll publish some of Grey’s comments about him here:

PROGRESS IN NEUROCYBERNETICS 1972 As a friend of the late and deeply lamented Professor Norbert Wiener I feel some personal reminiscences may be helpful to those who knew his work but had not the advantage of his friendship. He and I were born in the same State (Missouri, the "Show Me" State) but 16 years apart. His two volumes of Autobiography are worth reading carefully still, for he was a truely great man. …..

SOME REMINISCENCES When I first met Norbert Wiener in 1946 in Boston we immediately found a field of common interest frequency analysis. His concern was, of course, on the highest academic plane whereas mine was on the level of empirical application to the study of electric brain activity. It was only a little later that he published his famous work "Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine", followed by the extension of his ideas in "The Human Use of Human beings" with the sub-title "Cybernetics and Society". It is a privilege to participate in this meeting dedicated to the honour of that man. He was not only one of the great mathematicians but also a dedicated Humanist in the best sense. He re-vitalised the term Cybernetics, used first in 1834 by Ampere to embrace the Means of Government, and those two words are cognate, deriving from the Greek for "Steersmanship". So guidance is the key-word, and one principle is central; that the laws of guidance are similar – or even identical – in systems that seem as different as mice, men, machines and human communities. ………. Returning to my experiences with Norbert Wiener, one of his characteristics that embarrassed me when I experienced it first was his habit of sleeping at lectures – sometimes even when he was on the platform. I thought it was a sort of affectation, since he seemed to be attending to the proceedings all the time. I got to know him pretty well and when he was staying with me in Bristol I had the privilege of recording his brain electrical activity—EEG. Needless to say, this was perfectly normal—but he did go to sleep quite objectively during the recording. His EEG became that of a person deeply asleep. I tested his alertness and found that if I murmured "Norbert" or asked "What is the differential Coefficient of 3×2[3xsquared]?" he would awaken instantly and give a perfectly reasonable answer. So he was "asleep" but attentive at the same time and this paradox may have been one of the factors accounting for his unique mental energy and versatility – that he was able to rest his brain tranquilly while retaining his selective sensitivity to significant events. Another bond between Norbert Wiener and myself is that we were both born in the same State Missouri. He saw the light in Columbia, where his father was Professor of Modern Languages, while I breathed first in Kansas City where my father was on the "Star". The pet-name of Missouri is The "Show me" State, and Wiener and I certainly shared an insatiable curiosity about a wide diversity of events and appearances. In a subtle way, and without realising it of course, I may have benefited from Wiener’s father, who "left his mark" on the Kansas City School system. It is really worth re-reading the two volumes of his Autobiography (the second is "I am a Mathematician", 1956) and as well as his scholarly and personal works he wrote a Novel: "The Tempter" (1959). Also, Norbert was a world-traveller and linguist; I do sincerely consider him one of the greatest[in italics] men I have ever met. Years ago, when he was coming to stay with me in Bristol, I had an Italian Cook who was a "White Witch" (Strega bianca) that is told fortunes with Tarot Cards and worked spells for good. She had never heard of Norbert and happened to see him getting out of the taxi in the drive. Immediately she said to’ me in Italian, "That man has much to do with the future". He was a bit of a play-actor too – after a seminar or lecture he would ask me "How did I do Grey? Did I hold the audience?" Well, he did have much to do with the future and he did hold the audiences."  

In Survey of Cybernetics (1969):

Neurocybernetics (Communication and Control in the Living Brain) W. Grey Walter, M.A., Sc.D. (Cantab.) Director, Burden Neurological Institute, Bristol (U.K.) INTRODUCTION My first meeting with Norbert Wiener was at the M.I.T. in 1946, when a frequency analyser of my design was being installed for Dr. Robert Schwab, of the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. This instrument was the commercial embodiment of a machine I had made during the war to quantify the spectrum of the complex intrinsic brain rhythms. By the standards of those days it was very elaborate and expensive, and the problems it was intended to clarify were poorly defined and quite intractable by visual analysis of the conventional records. The interest of this particular meeting was that I had, empirically and intuitively, hit on an electromechanical method of frequency analysis which generated a rough approximation to a Fourier Transform; and the parameters and characteristics coincided almost exactly with those recommended by Wiener on purely theoretical grounds. I was quite put out to hear Wiener holding forth about the theory and principles of frequency analysis applied to brain waves as if this were a novel and difficult concept, when my machine was ticking away almost next door, reeling off brain wave spectra automatically, every ten seconds, hour after hour. Wiener was more than a little affronted, too, because he had not been told what we were doing and when I gave my account of the empirical features, describing the design of the filters, the choice of a ten second epoch and the discoveries we had already made, he fell asleep at once his habitual defence against competition. It was some time before we appreciated one another, but in later years we spent many happy and exciting days in one another’s homes and at international meetings. I took several records of his own brain rhythms which proved, amongst other things, that his defensive naps were real deep sleep; he could drop off in a few seconds, but would awaken instantly if one spoke his name or mentioned any topic in which he was really interested. For many years, Wiener’s thinking and my experimentation kept converging and overlapping, almost without any direct collusion or collaboration. His notion of scansion by the alpha rhythms matured at almost exactly the same time as we had observed some sort of space time transformation in analyses of real brain rhythms. Oddly enough, the artificial animals that I built at this time incorporated an elementary scanning receptor, white his model did not. My `tortoises’ are not confused by the dilemma of Buridan’s donkey, while his `moth’ would trundle confidently midway between two targets, missing both. Wiener refers to some of the differences between the two models in both The Human Use of Human Beings’ and in the second volume of his autobiography,2 but without apparently appreciating the significance of space time transforms as a possible resolution of the `determinism free will’ dilemma. This oversight seems all the more remarkable because of his intense interest in the reduction of philosophic verbalisms to operational hypotheses. Similar considerations apply to paradoxes such as those of Cantor and Russell which, as Wiener realised, can be resolved by attaching a time parameter to each statement. The automatic establishment of primacy confers special properties on a system which cannot be ignored in studies of the brain and organic behaviour; and the importance of temporal order in machine programming or process control cannot be exaggerated. Wiener’s attitude to biological, social and political questions was radical and mechanistic, although not merely materialistic, yet in some of his theoretical propositions and conjectures he seemed deaf to practical observations and necessities."

With regards to their models, it is interesting to note that Grey Walter built his ‘tortoises’ before Norbert Wiener’s ‘moth’.

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Dr. W. Grey Walter (cont)

wgwimage     Ray Cooper, the last director of the Burden Neurological Institute, wrote this bio on Grey Walter  for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography ( ) . (William) Grey Walter (1910-1977),  Walter, (William) Grey (1910-1977), neurophysiologist, was born in Kansas City, Missouri, on 19 February 1910, the only child of Karl Wilhelm Walter (1880-1965), a British journalist then working on the Kansas City Star, and his wife, Minerva Lucrezia (Margaret) Hardy (1879-1953), an American journalist. His parents had met and married in Italy, where they spent much of their lives. During the First World War they moved from the United States to Britain, where Grey Walter spent the rest of his life. He was educated at Westminster School (1922-8), where he specialized in classics and then in science, which he continued at King's College, Cambridge, from 1928. He took a third class in part one (1930) and a first class in physiology in part two of the natural sciences tripos (1931), and went on to do postgraduate research on nerve physiology and conditioned reflexes. His MA dissertation on `Conduction in nerve and muscle' was accepted in 1935.  Walter then joined Professor F. L. Golla, an eminent neurologist who was director of the central pathological laboratories at the Maudsley Hospital. Golla wanted to apply the new method of investigating the brain by recording its electrical activity (electroencephalogram or EEG) to clinical problems and was able to provide various types of patients for Walter to study. In 1936 a patient thought to be suffering from schizophrenia was found to have abnormal activity in the EEG and then discovered to have a cerebral tumour. Recordings done in the operating theatre confirmed that the activity was associated with the tumour. Between 1936 and 1939 many hundreds of patients were investigated; those with epilepsy were shown to have abnormal activity in the EEG between attacks.  In 1939 Golla and Walter moved to Bristol to open the Burden Neurological Institute as a research centre in neuropsychiatry. There Walter made many novel instruments to analyse the EEG. On-line frequency analysis was developed in 1943, sensory stimuli used to provoke abnormal activity in the EEG in 1947, and the toposcope to analyse the frequency and phase structure of the EEG in 1950. The work on conditioning went on and in the early 1960s led to the discovery of the contingent negative variation, which became a subject of study throughout the world. Walter also developed models that mimicked brain systems and this involved him with Norbert Wiener and others in early work on cybernetics. His `tortoises', displayed at the Festival of Britain in 1951, were designed to show the interaction of two sensory systems: light-sensitive and touch-sensitive control mechanisms (in effect, two nerve cells with visual and tactile inputs). These systems interacted with the motor drive in such a way that the `animals' exhibited `behaviour', finding their way round obstacles, for example.  Walter was a fluent speaker and writer, on general as well as technical subjects. He was fluent in French, Italian, and German. He was the author of 170 scientific publications and gave a number of important lectures. He relished making broadcasts and giving talks; he was a frequent guest on BBC television's The Brains trust. He wrote two books: The Living Brain (1953), which was popular science and was the first introduction that many people had to the brain, and a science fiction novel, Further Outlook (1956), which was not very successful. He was awarded an ScD by Cambridge in 1947, and in 1949 was made a professor of the University of Aix-Marseilles. In 1974 he was awarded the Oliver-Sharpey prize of the Royal College of Physicians. In 1975, the Electroencephalographic Society, of which he was a founder member, commemorated his achievements by striking a Grey Walter medal, `to be presented … in recognition of outstanding services to clinical neurophysiology'. He was the first recipient of the medal.    A member of the Cambridge Apostles from 1933, he was a communist supporter before and during the war but later became more sympathetic, first to anarchism, and then to syndicalism. He was an active member of tile Association of Scientific Workers. He was involved in the peace movement, being a member of the Peace Pledge Union in the 1930s and the Bristol committee of 100 in the 1960s; but was never a pacifist, and he served in the Home Guard during the Second World War. A firm atheist, he was interested in, though unconvinced by, the paranormal, and also did research on hypnosis. In 1934 Walter married Katharine Monica (b. 1911), younger daughter of Samuel Kerkharn Ratcliffe, a British journalist and lecturer; they separated in 1945 and divorced in 1946. They had two sons, Nicolas, who became a journalist and lecturer, and Jeremy, who became a physicist. In 1947 he married Vivian Joan (1915-1980), daughter of John Dovey, colour manufacturer. She was a colleague for many years. They separated in 1960; they had one son, Timothy (1949-1976). From 1960 to 1972 he lived with Lorraine Josephine, daughter of Mr Donn, property developer, and former wife of Keith Aldridge. In 1970 he suffered severe brain damage in a road accident which effectively ended his career. For forty years he had been at the forefront of research on the living brain, using its electrical activity to chart normal and abnormal function. He died of a heart attack at his home at Flat 2, 20 Richmond Park Road, Clifton, Bristol, on 6 May 1977 and was cremated on 12 May. TRIVIA: After Grey Walter had his road accident, he wrote about it in a paper called "My Miracle" now in the BNI Archive located at the British Science Museum Archives in Wroughton, Swindon.  In the document, he talks about how he got interested in motor scooters (Italian Vespa's, actually). Here's some dot points from the article:

  • Vespa 125cc scooter – over 20 years ago prior to accident. ie summer of '47. For reduction in transport costs.
  • accident  with horse. Unconscious from June 13 for about 3 weeks.
  • 60 y/o at time of accident.
  • Son Timothy about to start 3rd  yr at Cambridge. Discovered at start of 1st year that Timothy had muscular dystrophy.
  • Mention of lack of alpha brain waves in WGW.
  • 15 in every 100 have no alpha waves.
  • "My experience of what is now called "electronics" is even longer – over 50 years since my father and I started to make "wireless" sets in 1919, before there was any broadcasting in Britain."

Here's the address of the :- Science Museum Library and Archives Science Museum at Wroughton Hackpen Lane Wroughton SWINDON SN4 9NS DSCF0137

next Grey Walter post here

Dr. W. Grey Walter

Dr. W Grey Walter's portrait as it appears in the foyer at the BNI

There are various bio's out there on Grey Walter already, but I thought I'd try a  different approach.  One of the better references on Grey Walter and his tortoises is, interestingly enough, the book titled "Discussions on Child Development" in one volume 1971. Most researchers on Grey Walter and his tortoises usually only reference the Swindon archive extract which contains only the text of one section. I encourage you to buy this book and read all the Grey Walter notes.  The book is a collection of Proceeding on meetings on Psychological Development of the Child 1953, 1956, 1958, 1960.  All the speakers introduce themselves, so let me let Grey Walter introduce himself  (p21, Book 1):

" Well, sir, I may add to your confession of cosmopolitanism that I have an American mother and an English father, and that I share a birthplace with Norbert Wiener, T. S. Eliot, and Harry Truman. I was born in Missouri. For that reason my life has been one long illustration of the need to 'show me'.

I am an experimental scientific worker. I started my training in the University of Cambridge as a fairly pure neurophysiologist in the school of Adrian and Matthews, and I spent five years there, studying the detailed neurophysiology of the peripheral nervous system. I then had the honour of being delegated by my professor, Sir Joseph Barcroft, to work with a Rockefeller Fellow—one of the first and few who came from Leningrad–on conditioned reflexes. I was given the task of acting as his assistant and becoming familiar with the classical techniques of the Pavlovian School. I spent two years at that work, having a good background already of neuro­physiology. I was enabled first of all to introduce a number of modernizations into the Pavlovian technique, to assure myself of the essential accuracy of the Pavlovian hypotheses, and to become much impressed with the manner in which the Pavlovian workers at that time were able to distinguish factors related to personality in their experimental creatures, both animal and man. Since that time, as you know, that particular aspect of Pavlovian work has been rejected and denied by the Soviet authorities, and very few people, I think, understand how important the typology of Pavlov was, in the early days, to the development and scope of the Pavlovian theories.

After we had realized that to extend the work in Cambridge would cost far more money than was available, I had t he good fortune to be appointed as a Rockefeller Fellow at the Maudsley Hospital in London, where my approach to the human problem was directed and inspired by Professor Golla, who was then setting up a new laboratory for the multi-disciplinary study of the human organism; I had the role there of physiologist. There I was introduced to the study of the electrical activity of the brain, which as a physiologist I had previously considered to be inaccurate and unlikely to lead to any information, the brain being, of course, at that time a most objectionable subject of study. I had the opportunity to visit many European centres of brain physiology preparatory to setting up our own laboratory. I met Berger and Foerster and various other workers in the field of brain physiology. Our laboratory was set up mainly for the application of electroencephalography to psychiatric problems, but we were very soon more heavily involved with neurology, and I devoted a number of years to the study of organic lesions of the nervous system. It was rather a tough apprenticeship for a physiologist, having to relearn neuroanatomy and apply it to what was then an extremely inaccurate and troublesome method of study.

At the end of my period at the Maudsley, just before the War, I moved with Golla to Bristol, where I am now, and once again had to redirect my ideas towards the more generalized physiology of the human nervous system. Our plans were interrupted by the War. During the War we devoted our attention mainly to the problem of head injuries and epilepsy in Service personnel, but at the same time occurred the opportunity to deal with more normal physiology in matters quite relevant to the meeting here, that is the problem of children evacuated from the cities. Hundreds of ill-behaved and, in fact, horrible creatures descended upon us from the slums of big cities, presenting one of the most serious problems which my country has had to face: the disposal of these young creatures in schools, billets, and so forth. We found that the application of physiological techniques to the separation, selection, and classifica­tion of these children was astonishingly valuable. From that time dates my interest in the relevance of the physiology of the nervous system to the study of how children grow up, how the influences of environment and heredity, nurture and nature, combine to make the child as it is.

These interests have been paramount in my scientific thinking, combined obviously with the early influence of the Pavlovian School, and I have attempted particularly to quantify methods of study, to develop men and machines able to make objective and concrete appreciation of the problems which we encounter in this sort of work. This approach seems to me to have been neglected in the past, and ignorance here is liable to produce considerable misunderstanding if projected further. "

More to come next blog entry here…  

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