Feedback: Looking back on seeds planted
Social philosophers say that this is above all an age of mobility. — H. W. Bode of Bell Labs, 1960
What other themes that felt so true in one time period still feel so true today?
Feedback — The History of an Idea
Author: H. W. Bode, Bell Telephone Laboratories, 1960
Source: Classic Papers in Control Theory
In inviting me to give a paper, Professor Carlin knew, of course, that I hadn’t worked in the feedback field for nearly 20 years. […] “[A]n appropriate talk might be devoted largely to some reminiscences of the early days in the field, perhaps including also an indication of the way in which the seeds planted then have developed into modern control theory…”
To begin, then, we may recall that the modern feedback and control field is the fusion of what were originally two quite different technological areas. One parent area is represented by the typical mechanical regulator or elementary control circuit, such as the household thermostat. […] The Watt centrifugal governor is, of course, another more famous invention for the control of steam engines.
The two parent fields were originally quite different in character and emphasis. [For example,] the two fields differ radically in their mathematical flavor. [However,] the two fields were brought together very suddenly and very emphatically by the pressures of the war.
I would like to express one or two misgivings:
The first is that the old town seems a bit crowded. As first comers, we could choose the best building sites — that is, the high ground of mathematics and physics which promised the firmest foundations and the most sweeping outlooks — for our theoretical structures. But I am not sure that workers in the field today are quite so lucky. With all the new areas which have been opened up, one wonders whether there are enough really good problems to go around among all the workers now in the field.
My other concern has to do with the general structure of the field. [It reminds] me of the way in which my home town now sprawls along the highway, or perhaps more accurately, of the classic description of Los Angeles as 27 suburbs in search of a city.