William Ross Ashby (1903-1972) was a pioneer in cybernetics – the study of the control of human and animal systems by technology. In 1928, whilst still a medical student at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, Ashby began keeping a journal detailing his private research interests, which included advanced mathematics, as a means of relaxation. Eventually this research, reflecting his fascination with underlying organisation of the nervous system, developed to the point where he conceived of developing a machine that would replicate the manner in which the human brain worked.
By 16 March 1948, with assistance from his laboratory assistant Denis Bannister, Ashby successfully constructed and tested his machine which he called the ‘Homeostat’ the name taken from the word homeostasis, a term used in biology to refer to the control of internal conditions, such as blood temperature, within a living organism. In 1949, an article published in Time magazine described it as ‘the closest thing to a synthetic brain so far designed by man’. [The images of pages 2431 and 2432 from Volume 11 of Ashby’s journal, from 3 March 1948, show his notes and a hand-drawn schematic diagram for the final version of the Homeostat. By the time of his death, in 1972, Ashby’s journal stretched to over 7000 pages spread across 25 volumes.