Hermann Schmidt

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Born: December 9, 1894
Died: May 31, 1968

Hermann Schmidt was a German research scientist and patent official who developed the study of regulatory systems and independently of Norbert Wiener.

Schmidt was born in 1894 in Hanau, Germany, near Frankfurt. He received a humanistic Gymnasium education and began to study physics and mathematics at the University of Göttenberg in 1913. The outbreak of the First World War interrupted his studies, and his military service kept him from pursuing his education until 1919. In 1923, he finished his doctoral work under the supervision of Max Born. He began working as a physicist who studied pyrometry, or the measurement of heat radiation, in Düsseldorf at the Institute of Material Research on Iron, and earned a second thesis in applied physics in 1929.

In 1930, the direction of Schmidt’s career as a researcher shifted when he got a job at the Main Patent Office in Berlin. In this role, he was responsible for evaluating the originality of new technologies that were often difficult to distinguish. He realized that a new language of comparison—an “Allgemeine Regelungskunde” or general regulatory theory—was necessary to standardize how inventions would be categorized by function and application. He lectured on control theory between 1935 and 1940 and, in 1941, he published a memorandum calling for such a systematic approach. Schmidt contended that negative feedback had a universal character that could apply in a variety of mechanical and biological contexts.

In 1944, he was recognized for this work, receiving the title of the first professor of “Allgemeine Regelungskunde” at the Technische Hochschule Berlin. Schmidt’s membership in the Nazi party likely helped him obtain this position. The Nazi government hoped that Schmidt’s regulatory theory could be used in the development of automatically controlled submarines and rocket-propelled missiles.

After the Nazi defeat, Schmidt’s family lived in a small town near the Baltic Sea in Soviet-controlled East Germany. The Soviet army ordered him to write a textbook about control technology. This manuscript apparently got in the hands of one Solodownikow, a Soviet control scientist, who used it to write his own two-volume control technology textbook in the 1950s.

In 1948, he was formally “denazified,” and, by 1954, Schmidt had been reappointed to a professorship in the theory of control technology at the Technische Hochschule Berlin. He obtained professor emeritus status in 1960. He continued to develop the science of cybernetics, corresponding with the philosopher Arnold Gehlen rather than his engineering colleagues, who doubted the applicability of his ideas.

Schmidt’s work, which contemporaries in the 1960s began to call the “Berlin starting point of Cybernetics,” differed from Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics not in terms of its fundamental premise—that feedback phenomena occurred in mechanical technology, but also in biology, physiology, and social structures—but in its roots in differential equations rather than Claude Shannon’s information theory.

Further Reading

Christopher Charles Bissell, (2011). "Hermann Schmidt and German ’proto-cybernetics’," Information, Communication & Society, 14(1) (2011), pp. 156–171.

Frank Dittman, "Aspects of the Early History of Cybernetics in Germany," Trans. Newcomen Soc., 71 (1999-2000), pp. 143-154.