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Out of Control

The invention of autonomous control, like most inventions, has roots in ancient China. There, on a dusty windswept plain, a small wooden statue of a man in robes teeters upon a short pole. The pole is carried between a pair of turning wagon wheels, pulled by two red horses outfitted in bronze finery.

The statue man, carved in the flowing dresses of 9th-century China, points with outstretched hand towards a distant place. By the magic of noisy gears connecting the two wooden wheels, as the cart races along the steppes, the wooden man perched on the stick invariably, steadily, without fail, points south. When the cart turns left or right, the geared wheels calculate the change and swing the wooden man's (or is it a god's?) arm a corresponding amount in the opposite direction, negating the cart's shift and keeping the guide forever pointing to the south. With an infallible will, and on his own accord, the wooden figure automatically seeks south. The south-pointing chariot precedes a lordly procession, preventing the party from losing its way in the desolate countryside of old China.

How busy was the ingenious medieval mind of China! Peasant folk in the backwaters of southwestern China, wishing to temper the amount of wine downed in the course of a fireside toast, came upon a small device which, by its own accord, would control the rowdy spirits of the wine. Chou Ch'u-Fei, a traveler among the Ch'i Tung natives then, reported that drinking bouts in this kingdom had been perfected by means of a two-foot-long bamboo straw which automatically regulated wine consumption, giving large-throated and small-mouthed drinkers equal advantage. A "small fish made of silver" floated inside the straw. The downward weight of the internal metal float restricted the flow of warm plum wine if the drinker sucked too feebly (perhaps through intoxication), thereby calling an end for his evening of merriment. If he inhaled too boisterously, he also got nothing, as the same float became wedged upwards by force of the suction. Only a temperate, steady draw was profitable.

Upon inspection, neither the south-pointing carriage nor the wine straw are truly automatic in a modern (self-steering) sense. Both devices merely tell their human masters, in the most subtle and unconscious way, of the adjustment needed to keep the action constant, and leave the human to make the change in direction of travel or power of lung. In the lingo of modern thinking, the human is part of the loop. To be truly automatic, the south-pointing statue would have to turn the cart itself, to make it a south-heading carriage. Or a carrot would have to be dangled from the point of his finger so that the horses (now in the loop) followed it. Likewise the drinking straw would have to regulate its volume no matter how hard one sucked. Although not automatic, the south-pointing cart is based on the differential gear, a thousand-year-old predecessor to the automobile transmission, and an early prototype of modern self-pointing guns on an armored tank which aid the drivers inside where a magnetic compass is useless. Thus, these clever devices are curious stillbirths in our genealogy of automation. The very first truly automatic devices had actually been built long before, a millennia earler.

Ktesibios was a barber who lived in Alexandria in the first half of the third century B.C. He was obsessed with mechanical devices, for which he had a natural genius. He eventually became a proper mechanician -- a builder of artifactual creations -- under King Ptolemy II. He is credited with having invented the pump, the water organ, several kinds of catapults, and a legendary water clock. At the time, Ktesibios's fame as an inventor rivaled that of the legendary engineer Archimedes. Today, Ktesibios is credited with inventing the first honest-to-goodness automatic device.

Ktesibios's clock kept extraordinarily good time (for then) by self-regulating its water supply. The weakness of most water clocks until that moment was that as the reservoir of water propelling the drive mechanism emptied, the speed of emptying would gradually decrease (because a shallow level of water provides less pressure than a high level), slowing down the clock's movements. Ktesibios got around this perennial problem by inventing a regulating valve (regula) comprised of a float in the shape of a cone which fit its nose into a mating inverted funnel. Within the regula, water flowed from the funnel stem, over the cone, and into the bowl the cone swam in. The cone would then float up into the concave funnel and constrict the water passage, thus throttling its flow. As the water diminished, the float would sink, opening the passage again and allowing more water in. The regula would immediately seek a compromise position where it would let "just enough" water for a constant flow through the metering valve vessel.

Ktesibios's regula was the first nonliving object to self-regulate, self-govern, and self-control. Thus, it became the first self to be born outside of biology. It was a true auto thing -- directed from within. We now consider it to be the primordial automatic device because it held the first breath of lifelikeness in a machine.

It truly was a self because of what it displaced. A constant autoregulated flow of water translated into a constant autoregulated clock and relieved a king of the need for servants to tend the water clock's water vessels. In this way, "auto-self" shouldered out the human self. From the very first instance, automation replaced human work.

Ktesibios's invention is first cousin to that all-American 20th-century fixture, the flush toilet. Readers will recognize the Ktesibios floating valve as the predecessor to the floating ball in the upper chamber of the porcelain throne. After a flush, the floating ball sinks with the declining water level, pulling open the water valve with its metal arm. The incoming water fills the vessel again, raising the ball triumphantly so that its arm closes the flow of water at the precise level of "full." In a medieval sense, the toilet yearns to keep itself full by means of this automatic plumbing. Thus, in the bowels of the flush toilet we see the archetype for all autonomous mechanical creatures.

About a century later, Heron, working in the same city of Alexandria, came up with a variety of different automatic float mechanisms, which look to the modern eye like a series of wildly convoluted toilet mechanisms. In actuality, these were elaborate party wine dispensers, such as the "Inexhaustible Goblet" which refilled itself to a constant level from a pipe fitted into its bottom. Heron wrote a huge encyclopedia (the Pneumatica) crammed with his incredible (even by today's standards) inventions. The book was widely translated and copied in the ancient world and was influential beyond measure. In fact, for 2,000 years (that is, until the age of machines in the 18th century), no feedback systems were invented that Heron had not already fathered.

The one exception was dreamed up in the 17th century by a Dutch alchemist, lens grinder, pyromaniac, and hobby submariner by the name of Cornelis Drebbel. (Drebbel made more than one successful submarine dive around 1600!) While tinkering in his search for gold, Drebbel invented the thermostat, the other universal example of a feedback system. As an alchemist, Drebbel suspected that the transmutation of lead into gold in a laboratory was inhibited by great temperature fluctuations of the heat sources cooking the elements. In the 1620s he jerry-rigged a minifurnace which could bake the initial alchemic mixture over moderate heat for a very long time, much as might happen to gold-bearing rock bordering the depths of Hades. On one side of his ministove, Drebbel attached a glass tube the size of a pen filled with alcohol. The liquid would expand when heated, pushing mercury in a connecting second tube, which in turn would push a rod that would close an air draft on the stove. The hotter the furnace, the futher the draft would close, decreasing the fire. The cooling tube retracted the rod, thus opening the draft and increasing the fire. An ordinary suburban tract home thermostat is conceptually identical -- both seek a constant temperature. Unfortunately, Drebbel's automatic stove didn't make gold, nor did Drebbel ever publish its design, so his automatic invention perished without influence, and its design had to be rediscovered a hundred years later by a French gentleman farmer, who built one to incubate his chicken eggs.

James Watt, who is credited with inventing the steam engine, did not. Working steam engines had been on the job for decades before Watt ever saw one. As a young engineer, Watt was once asked to repair a small-scale model of an early working, though inefficient, Newcomen steam engine. Frustrated by its awkwardness, Watt set out to improve it. At about the time of the American Revolution, he added two things to the existing engines; one of them evolutionary, the other revolutionary. His key evolutionary innovation was separating the heating chamber from the cooling chamber; this made his engine extremely powerful. So powerful that he needed to add a speed regulator to moderate this newly unleashed machine power. As usual Watt turned to what already existed. Thomas Mead, a mechanic and miller, had invented a clumsy centrifugal regulator for a windmill that would lower the millstone onto the grain only when stone's speed was sufficient. It regulated the output but not the power of a millstone.

Watt contrived a radical improvement. He borrowed Mead's regulator from the mill and revisioned it into a pure control circuit. By means of his new regulator the steam machine gripped the throat of its own power. His completely modern regula automatically stabilized his now ferocious motor at a constant speed of the operator's choice. By adjusting the governor, Watt could vary the steam engine to run at any rate. This was revolutionary.

Like Heron's float and Drebbel's thermostat, Watt's centrifugal governor is transparent in its feedback. Two leaden balls, each at the end of a stiff pendulum, swing from a pole. As the pole rotates the balls spin out levitating higher the faster the system spins. Linkages scissored from the twirling pendulums slide up a sleeve on the pole, levering a valve which controls the speed of rotation by adjusting the steam. The higher the balls spin, the more the linkages close the valve, reducing the speed, until an equilibrium point of constant rpms (and height of spinning balls) is reached. The control is thus as dependable as physics.

Rotation is an alien power in nature. But among machines, it is blood. The only known bearing in biology is at the joint of a sperm's spinning hair propeller. Outside of this micromotor, the axle and wheel are unknown to those with genes. To the ungened machine, whirling wheels and spinning shafts are reasons to live. Watt gave machines the secret to controlling their own revolutions, which was his revolution. His innovation spread widely and quickly. The mills of the industrial age were fueled by steam, and the engines earnestly regulated themselves with the universal badge of self-control: Watt's flyball governor. Self-powered steam begat machine mills which begat new kinds of engines which begat new machine tools. In all of them, self-regulators dwelt, fueling the principle of snowballing advantages. For every one person visibly working in a factory, thousands of governors and self-regulators toiled invisibly. Today, hundreds of thousands of regulators, unseen, may work in a modern plant at once. A single human may be their coworker.

Watt took the volcanic fury of expanding steam and tamed it with information. His flyball governor is undiluted informational control, one of the first non-biological circuits. The difference between a car and an exploding can of gasoline is that the car's information -- its design -- tames the brute energy of the gas. The same amount of energy and matter are brought together in a car burning in a riot and one speeding laps in the Indy 500. In the latter case, a critical amount of information rules over the system, civilizing the dragon of fire. The full heat of fire is housetrained by small amounts of self-perception. Furious energy is educated, brought in from the wilds to work in the yard, in the basement, in the kitchen, and eventually in living rooms.

The steam engine is an unthinkable contraption without the domesticating loop of the revolving governor. It would explode in the face of its inventors without that tiny heart of a self. The immense surrogate slave power released by the steam engine ushered in the Industrial Revolution. But a second, more important revolution piggybacked on it unnoticed. There could not have been an industrial revolution without a parallel (though hidden) information revolution at the same time, launched by the rapid spread of the automatic feedback system. If a fire-eating machine, such as Watt's engine, lacked self-control, it would have taken every working hand the machine displaced to babysit its energy. So information, and not coal itself, turned the power of machines useful and therefore desirable.

The industrial revolution, then, was not a preliminary primitive stage required for the hatching of the more sophisticated information revolution. Rather, automatic horsepower was, itself, the first phase of the knowledge revolution. Gritty steam engines, not teeny chips, hauled the world into the information age.