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William Ross Ashby

20th century Name: William Ross Ashby Birth: 6 September1903
London, EnglandDeath: November 15, 1972School/tradition: PsychiatryMain interests: Psychiatry, Cybernetics, Systems theoryNotable ideas: Cybernetics, Law of Requisite Variety, Principle of Self-Organization Influenced: Norbert Wiener, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Herbert Simon, Stafford Beerand Stuart Kauffman

W. Ross Ashby (September 6, 1903, - November 15, 1972) was an English psychiatrist and a pioneer in cybernetics, the study of complex systems. His first name was never used, and generally, he was called 'Ross Ashby'.



William Ross Ashby was born in 1903 in London, where his father worked as Assistant Manager of an Advertising Agency.[1] From 1917 to 1921 William studied at the Edinburgh Academy in Scotland, and from 1921 at the Sidney Sussex in Cambridge, where he received his B.A. in 1924 and his M.B. and B.Ch. in 1928. From 1924 to 1928 he worked at the St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London. Later on he also received a Diploma in Psychological Medicine in 1930, and an M.A. and M.D. from Cambridge in 1935.

Ross Asby started working in 1930 as a Clinical Psychiatrist in the London County Council. From 1936 until 1947 he was a Research Pathologist in the St Andrews Hospital in Northampton in England. From 1945 to 1947 he served in India where he was Major in the Royal Army Medical Corps.

Back in England he was Director of Research of the Barnwood House Hospital in Gloucester from 1947 until 1959. For a year he was Director of the Burden Neurological Institute in Bristol. In 1960 he went to the States and became Professor, Depts. of Biophysics and Electrical Engineering, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in Illinois, U.S.A. until retirement in 1970.[2]

Ashby was president of Society for General Systems Research from 1962 to 1964. He became a fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatry in 1971.

On March 4-6, 2004, a W. Ross Ashby centenary conference was held at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth. Presenters at the conference included Stuart Kauffman, Stephen Wolfram and George Klir.[3]


Despite being widely influential within cybernetics, systems theory and, more recently, complex systems, he is not nearly as well known as many of the notable scientists his work influenced including Herbert Simon, Norbert Wiener, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Stafford Beer and Stuart Kauffman.[4]


In May 1928, Ashby was 24 and a medical student at St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London when he started a journal, recording his theories in a series of 25 volumes over a period of 44 years. In January 2003 the journal volumes were given to The British Library, London.[5]


Ross Ashby was one of the initial members of the Ratio Club, a small informal dining club of young psychologists, physiologists, mathematicians and engineers who met to discuss issues in cybernetics. The club was founded in 1949 by the neurologist John Bates and continued to meet until 1958.

Earlier in 1946, Alan Turing wrote a letter[6] to Ashby suggesting he use Turing's Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) for his experiments instead of building a special machine. In 1948 Ashby made the Homeostat [7]. Ashby only made one reference to Turing in his journal, in December 1954[8].


Ashby's Law of Requisite variety [9] --variety absorbs variety, defines the minimum number of states necessary for a controller to control a system of a given number of states. For example, the number of bits necessary in a digital computer to produce a required description or model.

In 1970 with Conant he produced the Good Regulator theorem "Every Good Regulator of a System Must be a Model of that System" [10].

Stafford Beer applied Variety to found management cybernetics and the Viable System Model. Working independently Gregory Chaitin followed this with algorithmic information theory.

See also


Articles, a selection
  • 1940. "Adaptiveness and equilibrium". In:J. Ment. Sci. 86, 478.
  • 1945. "Effects of control on stability". In: Nature, London, 155, 242-243.
  • 1946. "The behavioural properties of systems in equilibrium". In: Amer. J. Psychol. 59, 682-686.
  • 1947. "Principles of the Self-Organizing Dynamic System". In: Journal of General Psychology (1947). volume 37, pages 125--128: This article has the first known occurrence of the term "self-organizing" in print.
  • 1948. "The homeostat". In: Electron, 20, 380.
  • 1962. "Principles of The Self-Organizing System". In: Heinz Von Foerster and George W. Zopf, Jr. (eds.), Principles of Self-Organization (Sponsored by Information Systems Branch, U.S. Office of Naval Research). Republished as a PDF in Emergence: Complexity and Organization (E:CO) Special Double Issue Vol. 6, Nos. 1-2 2004, pp. 102-126.
About W. Ross Ashby
  • Asaro, Peter (2008). "From Mechanisms of Adaptation to Intelligence Amplifiers: The Philosophy of W. Ross Ashby," in Michael Wheeler, Philip Husbands and Owen Holland (eds.) The Mechanical Mind in History, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


  1. ^ Biography of W. Ross Ashby The W. Ross Ashby Digital Archive, 2008.
  2. ^ Autobiographical summary, taken from Ashby's own notes, made about 1972.
  3. ^ W. Ross Ashby Centenary Conference The W. Ross Ashby Digital Archive, 2008.
  4. ^ Cosma Shalizi, W. Ross Ashby web page, 1999.
  5. ^ W. Ross Ashby Journal (1928-1972) The W. Ross Ashby Digital Archive, 2008.
  6. ^ Alan Turing letter The W. Ross Ashby Digital Archive, 2008.
  7. ^ Java applet simulation by Dr Horace Townsend
  8. ^ W. Ross Ashby Journal (1928-1972), page 5039 The W. Ross Ashby Digital Archive, 2008.
  9. ^ (Ashby 1956)
  10. ^ Int. J. Systems Sci., 1970. vol 1, No. 2 pp89-97

External links

v • d • eSubfields of and scientists involved in cyberneticsSubfields Polycontexturality · Second-order cybernetics · Catastrophe theory · Connectionism · Control theory · Decision theory · Information theory · Semiotics · Synergetics · Biological cybernetics · Biosemiotics · Biomedical cybernetics · Biorobotics · Computational neuroscience · Homeostasis · Management cybernetics · Medical cybernetics · New Cybernetics · Neuro cybernetics · Sociocybernetics · Emergence · Artificial intelligenceCyberneticistsIgor Aleksander · William Ross Ashby · Anthony Stafford Beer · Claude Bernard · Ludwig von Bertalanffy · Valentin Braitenberg · Gordon S. Brown · Walter Bradford Cannon · Heinz von Foerster · Charles François · Jay Wright Forrester · Buckminster Fuller · Ernst von Glasersfeld · Francis Heylighen · Erich von Holst · Stuart Kauffman · Sergei P. Kurdyumov · Niklas Luhmann · Warren McCulloch · Humberto Maturana · Talcott Parsons · Gordon Pask · Walter Pitts · Alfred Radcliffe-Brown · Robert Trappl · Valentin Turchin · Jakob von Uexküll · Francisco Varela · Frederic Vester · Charles Geoffrey Vickers · Stuart Umpleby · John N. Warfield · Kevin Warwick · Norbert Wiener v • d • eSystemsand systems scienceSystems categoriesConceptual systems · Physical systems · Social systems · Systems theory · Systems science · Systems scientistsSystemsBiological system · Complex system · Complex adaptive system · Conceptual system · Cultural system · Dynamical system · Economic system · Ecosystem · Formal system · Global Positioning System · Human anatomy · Information systems · Legal systems of the world · Living systems · Systems of measurement · Metric system · Multi-agent system · Nervous system · Nonlinearity · Operating system · Physical system · Political system · Sensory system · Social structure · Solar System · Systems artTheoretical fields Chaos theory · Complex systems · Control theory · Cybernetics · Scientific holism · Sociotechnical systems theory · Systems biology · System dynamics · Systems ecology · Systems engineering · Systems psychology · Systems science · Systems theorySystems scientists Russell L. Ackoff · William Ross Ashby · Gregory Bateson · Stafford Beer · Ludwig von Bertalanffy · Kenneth E. Boulding · Peter Checkland · C. West Churchman · Heinz von Foerster · Charles François · Jay Wright Forrester · Ralph W. Gerard · Debora Hammond · George Klir · Niklas Luhmann · Humberto Maturana · Donella Meadows · Mihajlo D. Mesarovic · Howard T. Odum · Talcott Parsons · Ilya Prigogine · Anatol Rapoport · Francisco Varela · John N. Warfield · Norbert Wiener Categories: 1903 births | 1972 deaths | Alumni of the Medical College of St Bartholomew's Hospital | Artificial intelligence researchers | Control theorists | Cyberneticists | English psychiatrists | People from London | Systems psychologists | Systems scientists

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