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Defining the Computer: Herbert Simon and the Bureaucratic Mind--Part 1
April-June 2008 (vol. 30 no. 2)
pp. 42-51
Hunter Heyck, University of Oklahoma
Herbert Simon understood the computer, the organization, and the individual mind as being "species of the genus information processor." By defining the computer in this way—in a new understanding of mind and machine—Simon hoped to provide answers to the problems of choice and control in complex systems. Part 1 discusses Simon's work before he came to computing. Part 2 covers Simon's early work in computer science.

1. H. Simon, Models of My Life, Basic Books, 1991, p. 206, For a detailed exploration of Simon's life and work, see H. Crowther-Heyck, Herbert A. Simon: The Bounds of Reason in Modern America, Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2005; H. Simon, Models of My Life.
2. Simon died in 2001 at age 84; he received a PhD in political science from the Univ. of Chicago in 1942, was a founder of Carnegie Tech's innovative Graduate School of Industrial Administration, won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1978 for his contributions to mathematical economic analysis and to the theory of the firm, and was a prominent contributor to cognitive psychology and artificial intelligence research from the mid-1950s on. In addition, Simon was a skilled combatant in the field of institutional politics, serving as chairman of the board of the Social Sciences Research Council, member of the President's Science Advisory Committee, and advisor to the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, to name only a few of his many affiliations.
3. A. Newell and H. Simon, Human Problem Solving, Prentice Hall, 1972.
4. Recent years have seen a great deal of interest emerge in the systems sciences, the "systems approach," and the various fields which constituted (or emerged) from this interdisciplinary region, such as operations research, game theory, information theory, cybernetics, cognitive psychology, AI, systems analysis, and systems engineering. Some of the key recent works include G. Bowker, "How to Be Universal Some Cybernetic Strategies," Social Studies of Science, vol. 23, 1993, pp. 107-127, R. Cordeschi, The Discovery of the Artificial: Behavior, Mind, and Machines Before and Beyond Cybernetics, Studies in Cognitive Systems, vol. 28, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002; Crowther-Heyck, Herbert A. Simon; P. Edwards, The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America, MIT Press, 1996; M. Fortun and S. Schweber, "Scientists and the Legacy of World War II: The Case of Operations Research (OR)," Social Studies of Science, vol. 23, 1993, pp. 595-642; S. Franchi and G. Güzeldere, Mechanical Bodies, Computational Minds: Artificial Intelligence from Automata to Cyborgs, MIT Press, 2005; P. Galison, "The Ontology of the Enemy: Norbert Wiener and the Cybernetic Vision," Critical Inquiry, vol. 21, Autumn 1994, pp. 228-266; N.K. Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1999; S.J. Heims, The Cybernetics Group, MIT Press, 1991; T.P. Hughes, Rescuing Prometheus, Pantheon, 1998; T.P. Hughes and A.C. Hughes, eds., Systems, Experts, and Computers, MIT Press, 2000; L. Kay, "Cybernetics, Information, Life: The Emergence of Scriptural Representations of Heredity," Configurations, vol. 5, no. 1, 1997, pp. 3-91; S. Johnson, "Three Approaches to Big Technology: Operations Research, Systems Engineering, and Project Management," Technology and Culture, vol. 38, no. 4, 1997; D. Mindell, Between Human and Machine: Feedback, Control, and Computing before Cybernetics, Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2002; P. Mirowski, Machine Dreams: Economics Becomes a Cyborg Science, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2002; A. Pickering, "Cyborg History and the World War II Regime," Perspectives on Science, vol. 3, no. 1, 1995, pp. 1-48; A. Pickering, "Cybernetics and the Mangle: Ashby, Beer, and Pask," Social Studies of Science, vol. 32, no. 3, 2002, pp. 413-437; S.P. Waring, "Cold Calculus: the Cold War and Operations Research," Radical History Rev., vol. 63, 1995, pp. 28-51; E. Rau, "Combat Scientists: The Emergence of Operations Research in the United States during World War II," doctoral dissertation, Univ. of Pennsylvania, 1999; E.R. Weintraub, ed., Toward a History of Game Theory, History of Political Economy, vol. 24, supp., Duke Univ. Press, 1992.
5. The historical approach most interested in the rise of large-scale organizations and the managed society is aptly termed the "organizational synthesis." The most notable expositions of the "organizational synthesis" are A. Chandler, The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business, The Belknap Press of the Harvard Univ. Press, 1977; J.K. Galbraith, The New Industrial State, 4th ed., Houghton Mifflin Co., 1985; R. Wiebe, The Search for Order, 1877–1920, Hill and Wang, 1967; E. Hawley, "Herbert Hoover, The Commerce Secretariat, and the Vision of an 'Associative State,'" J. Am. History, vol. 61, June 1974, pp. 116-140; S.P. Hays, Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1959; S.P. Hays, The Response to Industrialism, 1885–1914, 2nd ed., Univ. of Chicago Press, 1995; B. Balogh, "Reorganizing the Organizational Synthesis: Federal-Professional Relations in Modern America," Studies in American Political Development, vol. 5, Spring 1991, pp. 119-172; and L. Galambos, "The Emerging Organizational Synthesis in Modern American History," Business History Rev., vol. 44, Autumn 1970, pp. 279-290.
6. On Forrester, see T.P. Hughes, Rescuing Prometheus, and I.F. Elichirigoity, "Towards A Genealogy of Planet Management: Computer Simulation, Limits to Growth, and the Emergence of Global Spaces," doctoral dissertation, Univ. of Illinois-Champaign, 1994. On von Neumann, see S. Heims, John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener: From Mathematics to the Technologies of Life and Death, MIT Press, 1980; P. Mirowski, "What Were von Neumann and Morgenstern Trying to Accomplish?" in Weintraub, ed., Toward a History of Game Theory.
7. Hughes, Rescuing Prometheus.
8. Galison "The Ontology of the Enemy"; Edwards, The Closed World.
9. C. Shannon and W. Weaver, A Mathematical Theory of Communication, Univ. of Illinois Press, 1949.
10. Note that this way of thinking of communication, characteristic of communications engineers, meshed very well with the way cryptographers understood communication: in both cases, there is a message, a process that transforms it, and a process that recreates the original message.
11. H.A. Simon, Models of Discovery: And Other Topics in the Methods of Science, D. Reidel, 1977.
12. Similarly, Alan Turing was interested in decision rules and the problem of "decidability" in the abstract mathematical systems he studied. Turing, "On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entschiedungsproblem," Proc. London Mathematical Soc., series 2, vol. 42, pp. 230-265.
13. E.M. Purcell, The Crisis of Democratic Theory: Scientific Naturalism and the Problem of Value, Univ. of Kentucky Press, 1973.
14. C. Barnard, Functions of the Executive, Harvard Univ. Press, 1968 (reprint of the 1938 ed.), pp. 294-295, Barnard's observations are all the more meaningful because he was an executive president of New Jersey Bell in the archetypical large-scale technical system, the telephone system.
15. Simon, Models of My Life, pp. 175-188.
16. H. Simon, "Rational Choice and the Structure of the Environment," Psychological Rev., vol. 63, , Mar. 1956, reprinted in H. Simon, Models of Man, Social and Rational: Mathematical Essays on Rational Human Behavior in a Social Setting, John Wiley &Sons, 1957.
17. Simon, Models of My Life, p. 180.
18. Ibid., pp. 187-188.
19. Ibid., pp. 188-189.
20. H. Simon "Letter to Brother Benedict," 11/22/47, box 5, folder 198, Herbert Simon Papers, Carnegie Mellon Univ. Archives, p. 1. (The Herbert Simon Papers will be referred to as HSP hereafter.)
21. H. Simon, Administrative Behavior, Macmillan, 1947, p. 1, Note also that Simon's generation's fascination with organization, interdependence, and system reflected a similarly powerful moral-spiritual searching for order in a newly secular intellectual world. The postwar obsession with interdisciplinarity in science was but one of many expressions of this desire for wholeness and unity among a community committed to specialization but saddened by the isolation it brought. On this subject, see D. Hollinger, "Science as a Weapon in Kulturkampfen," Isis, vol. 86, no. 3, 1995, pp. 440-454; Hollinger, Science, Jews, and Secular Culture: Studies in Mid-Twentieth Century American Intellectual History, Princeton Univ. Press, 1996; P. Galison, "The Americanization of Unity," Daedalus, vol. 127, no. 1, 1998, pp. 45-72; and G. Holton, "Einstein and the Cultural Roots of Modern Sciences," Daedalus, vol. 127, no. 1, 1998, pp. 1-44.
22. Simon, Models of My Life, p. 64, 84.
23. On the social scientists' search for order, see D. Ross, The Origins of American Social Science, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991, Crowther-Heyck, Herbert A. Simon; B.D. Karl, Charles E. Merriam and the Study of Politics, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1974. On municipal research agencies and the emergence of public administration, see M. Schiesl, The Politics of Efficiency: Municipal Administration and Reform in America, 1880–1920, Univ. of California Press, 1977; D. Critchlow, The Brookings Institution, 1916–1952: Expertise and the Public Interest in a Democratic Society, Northern Illinois Univ. Press, 1985; R. Seidelman, Disenchanted Realists: Political Science and the American Crisis, 1884–1984, SUNY Press, 1985; and B. Crick, The American Science of Politics: Its Origins and Conditions, Univ. of California Press, 1964.
24. Simon, Models of My Life, p. 119.
25. On scientific management, see H. Aitken, Taylorism at Watertown Arsenal: Scientific Management in Action, Harvard Univ. Press, 1960, H. Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century, Monthly Review Press, 1974; R. Edwards, Contested Terrain: The Transformation of the Workplace in the Twentieth Century, Basic Books, 1979; R. Kanigel, The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency, Viking, 1997; S. Waring, Taylorism Transformed: Scientific Management Theory Since 1945, Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1991; and F. W. Taylor, The Principles of Scientific Management and Shop Management, Routledge, 1993, reprint of 1911 ed.
26. H. Schultz, The Theory and Measurement of Demand, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1938.
27. C.A. Ridley and H. Simon, Measuring Municipal Activities: A Survey of Suggested Criteria for Appraising Administration, Int'l City Managers' Assoc., Chicago, 1938.
28. See T. Parsons, The Structure of Social Action, The Free Press, 1937, see also C. Camic's excellent introduction to Talcott Parsons: The Early Essays, C. Camic, ed., Univ. of Chicago Press, 1991.
29. E.C. Tolman's Purposive Behavior in Animals and Men (The Century Co., 1932) was Simon's first main source for psychological ideas. Simon took a seminar with Rudolf Carnap at the University of Chicago and read several of his books, finding his analysis of syntax fascinating. H. Simon to R. Carnap, 2 Aug. 1937, box 61, folder Autobiography—Source Documents—1942-1982, HSP. Simon also devoured other books produced by the Vienna Circle and their disciples, finding A.J. Ayer's Language, Truth, and Logic (Victor Gollancz, 1936) particularly valuable.
30. One interesting aspect of this conception of decision-making, for Simon, was that it redefined the relationship between facts and values. To him, facts and values were radically different things, not because of their intrinsic properties but because of where they stood in the hierarchy of decision. On this issue, see Crowther-Heyck, Herbert A. Simon, chapters 3–5.
31. C. Merriam, The New Democracy and the New Despotism, McGraw-Hill, 1939; H. Lasswell, Psychopathology and Politics, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1934. On Merriam also see Karl, Charles E. Merriam and the Study of Politics.
32. On behaviorism see J. O'Donnell, The Origins of Behaviorism: American Psychology, 1870–1920, New York Univ. Press, 1985; K. Danziger, Constructing the Subject: Historical Origins of Psychological Research, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990; L. Smith, Behaviorism and Logical Positivism: A Reassessment of the Alliance, Stanford Univ. Press, 1986; D. Ross, The Origins of American Social Science, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991; and R. Smith, History of the Human Sciences, W.W. Norton, 1997.
33. Simon, Administrative Behavior, p. 79.
34. Ibid., p. 102.
35. Ibid., p. 83.
36. Ibid., p. 125.
37. Ibid., p. 221, "It should be perfectly apparent that almost no decision made in an organization is the task of a single individual."
38. H. Simon to P. Appleby, 23 Feb. 1948, box 5, folder 197, HSP, p. 2.
39. Simon, Administrative Behavior, Ch. 9.
40. Ibid., p. 4.
41. The Cowles Commission has not received sufficient attention from historians of economics as yet. For a member's account of the early years of the Cowles Commission, see C. Christ, "History of the Cowles Commission, 1932–1952," Economic Theory and Measurement: a Twenty Year Research Report, Cowles Commission for Research in Economics, Univ. of Chicago, 1952, pp. 3-67; and C. Christ, "The Cowles Commission's Contributions to Econometrics at Chicago, 1939–1955," J. Economic Literature, vol. 32, Mar. 1994, pp. 30-59.
42. Christ, "History," pp. 5-6.
43. Ibid., pp. 19-26, In 1956, the Commission moved to New Haven and became affiliated with Yale, helping make it a leader in economics/political economy in the late 1950s and 1960s.
44. Cowles Commission, Economic Theory and Measurement, Appendix I "Biographies of Staff, Fellows, and Guests," pp. 111-150. Also see Simon, Models of My Life, pp. 101-107, for his experiences with the Cowles Commission.
45. Fifteen of the 78 members of the Cowles research staff during the late 1940s had been members of planning organizations before the war, and dozens more worked for the armed forces in various planning-related occupations during the war. This connection to governmental planning agencies continued into the Cold War era; in 1951 no fewer than 10 members already were working under contracts for RAND, and many more would follow suit during the 1950s, Simon among them. Simon was thus not the only member of his generation who moved from the problems of planning urban systems to the problems of planning defense systems.
46. Cowles Commission, Economic Theory and Measurement, Preface.
47. Christ, "History," pp. 61-62.
48. Ibid., p. 61.
49. There have been several studies recently of OR's origins, all of which emphasize the context of WWII as vital for its development. Clearly, the war was central to OR's emergence, but it did not create interest in these problems de novo. Rather, the war and military patronage selected and amplified several already existing lines of research, organizing them around a specific set of problems. On the origins of OR, see the sources listed in Ref. 4, especially Mirowski, Machine Dreams; Weintraub, ed., Toward a History of Game Theory; Rau, Combat Scientists; and Crowther-Heyck, Herbert A. Simon.

Index Terms:
artificial intelligence; cognitive science; context for computing; Herbert A. Simon; Allen Newell; organization theory; operations research; cybernetics
Hunter Heyck, "Defining the Computer: Herbert Simon and the Bureaucratic Mind--Part 1," IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, vol. 30, no. 2, pp. 42-51, April-June 2008, doi:10.1109/MAHC.2008.18
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