The Biological Computer Laboratory

Three Timelines of the BCL


The three timelines that follow chart the general context in which the BCL operated. They include the lab's history, a sense of the technical innovations during and following its time (to establish how forward-thinking the BCL was for its time), and a general chronology of relevant countercultural moments both on campus and nationwide. It is only by understanding the BCL's position locally and globally within these technological and social histories that it can fully be understood as being at the forefront of interdisciplinary thinking for its time.
History of the Lab

1949 – Heinz von Foerster comes to the United States, presents at the Macy conference, and edits its conference proceedings.

1953 – Macy group ends.

1958 – The BCL opens on January 1.

1956 – Bionics emerges in opposition to Artificial Intelligence due in large part to the BCL.

1960 – Paul Weston presents the Numarete at a conference; von Foerster publishes his Doomsday paper; Murray Babcock completes his dissertation work on the Adaptive Reorganizing Automaton.

1961 – von Foerster offers W Ross Ashby a position with the BCL; the BCL hosts the Principles in Self-Organization symposium at Allerton in June.

1962 – Weston details the numa-rete in electronics magazine.

1965 – The Dynamic Signal Analyzer is built.

1966 – J.K. Russell’s Visual Image Processor is unveiled.

1968 – von Foerster teaches a Heuristics seminar in response to student interest at the same time as the first edition of the Whole Earth Catalog by Stewart Brand is published (the same year as Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, in which Brand also appears).

1969 – The Whole University Catalog is published as a result from the Heuristics seminar; von Foerster presents at a Cognitive Studies and Artificial Intelligence conference.

1970 – von Foerster works on the BCL’s Direct Access Intelligence Systems proposal; von Foerster teaches an Engineering Ecology course that results in The Ecological Source Book; the Horsley Committee commences its work in the fall, targeting von Foerster.

1971 – von Foerster teaches a course that would result with Metagames the following year.

1972 – Ashby retires from the BCL.

1973 – von Foerster’s Cybernetics of Cybernetics seminar begins; Ricardo Uribe joins the BCL.

1974 – Cybernetics of Cybernetics gets published; von Foerster pursues retirement; Uribe publishes on his autopoesis PLATO simulations.

1975/76 – BCL formally closes.
Computational History

1945 – Vannevar Bush, a figure associated with the atomic bomb and histories of analog computing, publishes on the Memex, a desk upon which users can create links between documents in a cumulative fashion to build upon standing sets of knowledge.

1961 – Timesharing systems, among them PLATO II, emerge as the first online communities.

1969 – ARPAnet, the first system to connect different types of computers, is switched on, and Doug Englebart presents The Mother of All Demos, an introduction to now mundane aspects of everyday computer use such as video chats, typing, editing, and mouse use.

1971 – Don Hoefler of Electronic News first publishes the term “Silicon Valley.” Ray Tomlinson creates a networked email protocol using the ‘@’ sign around the same time that PLATO notes take off.

1976 – Apple Inc is founded on April 1.

1985 – Under Stewart Brand's leadership, the WELL, another popular early online community, first goes online, attracting a variety of countercultural and computational figures.

1993 – Mosaic, the first institution-supported browser, takes off, gaining popularity quickly for its reliability and easy installation.
Countercultural and Campus History

1947 - The Clabaugh Act, a McCarthy-era provision against use of University facilities toward speaking on behalf of organizations deemed seditious, is passed in the aftermath of attacks on the American Youth for Democracy (AYD) for being an alleged communist group.

1949 - The first major purge of faculty in the shadow of the post-WWI Red Scare occurs at the University of Washington.

1950 - The Internal Security Act gets passed, stipulating that the federal government could try to force organizations to register as communist fronts. Over 100 faculty refuse to sign on to a proposed loyalty oath at the University of California, with some fired from the University of California system.

1953 - At the University of Michigan, two faculty members are fired for refusing to testify on their political affiliations. Another is put on probation.

1954 - David Dodds Henry accepts the position of president of the University of Illinois despite his reluctance amid controversies that arose during the vetting process that he was not strong enough in quelling communist groups during his time at Wayne State University.

1965 - Norman Mailer's speech at Berkeley is one of many events surrounding Vietnam Day protests.

1966 - The W.E.B DuBois Club was formed to challenge the Clabaugh Act, and University Trustees refuse to recognize the group.

1967 - Students sit-in against Dow Chemical, and the newly formed Students for Free Speech group forms and invites a Communist speaker, in part as a reaction to the Clabaugh Act and the University's decision to deny recognition to the DuBois Club, accused of having communist leanings.

1967 - As part of Illinois' Centennial Year, Paul Schroeder and others who revolved around the BCL help organize a series of teach-ins surrounding the main Centennial events, including a critical convocation speech from Schroeder. These teach-ins result in part with the LAS 199 course number that the Heuristics course would later emerge under.

1968 – Students flock to the Union as part of the Day of Resistance Rally on April 3. President Johnson decides not to run for re-election. Robert F. Kennedy is assassinated, and protests plague the DNC.

1968 - Project 500, a university initiative to admit 500 black students in light of disproportionate enrollment, begins on campus. Later that year, 252 students are arrested after a controversial sit-in at the Union in response to housing and aid issues associated with the project. 

1969 - Governor Reagan imposes martial law in California after police escalation surrounding the establishment of a People's Park, a lot purchased by the University that went unused after tearing down the houses that were there. At UIUC, local Moratorium protests occur on October 14 and 15, with nine thousand marching to Champaign’s West Side Park.

1969/70 – The Mansfield Amendment takes effect. Proposed by Senator Mike Mansfield, the amendment mandated that military-funded research must have a clear connection to military aims, as an effort to decrease military initiatives on university grounds. While the BCL’s theoretical work failed to meet this mandate, leading in part to its closure, artificial intelligence research did, leading it to thrive.

1970 - The US invades Cambodia as part of the Vietnam War, catalyzing protests that would later lead to Kent State.

1972 - J Edgar Hoover dies, leaving behind a controversial legacy of FBI activity against the surge of countercultural activity on college campuses.


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