About 1985, Robert Noyce, co-inventor of the integrated circuit and chairman of the board of INTEL, wrote an article in the IEEE Spectrum advocating that the electrical engineer should study biological systems to help find a way of building more powerful computer systems. Twenty-seven years earlier at the University of Illinois, the Biological Computer Laboratory had been founded by Heinz Von Foerster for this purpose. The following account provides a tantalizing glimpse of the history of the laboratory.

In the years after World War II, the notion and the profession of electrical engineering underwent a transformation and expansion. New concepts, thoughts, ideas, inventions, and fields of study were born within the profession or were brought in from other fields of study and absorbed as part of a new self. Who would have thought that a theory of information would emerge from an engineering laboratory; that an electrical hypothesis, that is, the hypothesis that all our perceptual, intellectual, and emotional experiences are states of electrical activity in the central nervous system, would dominate the neural sciences; that the abstract notion of computation would find its manifestation in electrical devices that, by integrating new insights from semiconductor physics, evolved into machines of such complexity that one could be tempted to make comparison of these machines with their creators? One spoke and even speaks today of electronic brains; one spoke of mentality in machines and still asks: "Can machines think?"

It is clear that, in this context, engineering and particularly electrical engineering with its large spectrum of applicability, established close ties with other disciplines whose list would run from astronomy to zoology.

One point on this large, interdisciplinary interface was the Biological Computer Laboratory (BCL), whose aim was to understand the process of cognition and to demonstrate this understanding with the appropriate software and hardware. Concepts that enjoy popularity in the 1990s -- connectionism and parallelism in computer architecture or, in mathematics, iteration and recursion with their fascinating contingencies for the behavior of systems that may go into multiple stabilities or into chaos -- were central objects of study 30 years ago at BCL. Most likely, the first parallel computers were build and exhibited there.

In 1960, W. Ross Ashby, a leading British neuroscientist and author of the two classics, Introduction to Cybernetics (1956) and Design for a Brain (1960), indicated that he would be ready to leave his post as director of the Burden Neurological Institute in Bristol, England, and join the University of Illinois to work in the Department of Electrical Engineering with the people of BCL. This was good news, and the provost was informed at once. He appreciated the good news, and then he asked: "Tell me, what is Dr. Ashby's background?" When he learned that Ashby is a psychiatrist, he came back with his second question: "Tell me, is it already that bad in the EE Department?"

It was not bad at all. After 10 years of service with the University of Illinois, Ashby retired and returned to England. In the first letter he sent back, which was the last letter received from him before he died, he wrote: "...thank you for the miraculous years of the Sixties. Yours affectionately, Ross."

BCL left behind a rich legacy. In its day, it was one of the few education institutions teaching cybernetics. Between 1958 and 1975, operating under 25 grants, the laboratory produced 256 articles and books, 14 master's theses, and 28 doctoral dissertations. The topics covered epistemology, logic, neurophysiology, theory of computation, electronic music, and automated instruction.


Centennial History of the Department of ECE
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Electrical and Computer Engineering Department
ECE Publications