Repository logo

Inventing Intelligence: On the History of Complex Information Processing and Artificial Intelligence in the United States in the Mid-Twentieth Century



Change log


Penn, Jonathan 


In the mid-1950s, researchers in the United States melded formal theories of problem solving and intelligence with another powerful new tool for control: the electronic digital computer. Several branches of western mathematical science emerged from this nexus, including computer science (1960s–), data science (1990s–) and artificial intelligence (AI). This thesis offers an account of the origins and politics of AI in the mid-twentieth century United States, which focuses on its imbrications in systems of societal control. In an effort to denaturalize the power relations upon which the field came into being, I situate AI’s canonical origin story in relation to the structural and intellectual priorities of the U.S. military and American industry during the Cold War, circa 1952 to 1961.

This thesis offers a detailed and comparative account of the early careers, research interests, and key outputs of four researchers often credited with laying the foundations for AI and machine learning—Herbert A. Simon, Frank Rosenblatt, John McCarthy and Marvin Minsky. It chronicles the distinct ways in which each sought to formalise and simulate human mental behaviour using digital electronic computers. Rather than assess their contributions as discontinuous with what came before, as in mythologies of AI's genesis, I establish continuities with, and borrowings from, management science and operations research (Simon), Hayekian economics and instrumentalist statistics (Rosenblatt), automatic coding techniques and pedagogy (McCarthy), and cybernetics (Minsky), along with the broadscale mobilization of Cold War-era civilian-led military science generally.

I assess how Minsky’s 1961 paper 'Steps Toward Artificial Intelligence' simultaneously consolidated and obscured these entanglements as it set in motion an initial research agenda for AI in the following two decades. I argue that mind-computer metaphors, and research in complex information processing generally, played an important role in normalizing the small- and large-scale structuring of social behaviour using mathematics in the United States from the second half of the twentieth century onward.





Staley, Richard
Curry, Helen


Complex Information Processing, Artificial Intelligence, Business History, Mid-Twentieth Century, United States, Mathematical Sciences, Management Science, Computer Science, Bureaucracy, Herbert A. Simon, Frank Rosenblatt, John McCarthy, Marvin Minsky, Cold War


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge