The Life of Norbert Wiener

The Life of Norbert Wiener

By many who have written about the famous mathematician, Norbert Wiener was considered a child prodigy, and it is this fact that those writings seem to lean toward.  In most cases, the writings seem to be a comparison of his childhood academics and what he later accomplished throughout his life. Did he live up to the child prodigy designation that was bestowed upon him?  Was it the Tufts, Harvard, and Cambridge educations that made the man,   or was the genius already inside him?  From his early childhood development to his working years at MIT, Wiener was continuously learning and teaching.  He made many contributions to the telecommunications and computer industries, much of which were not fully understood until much later in his life.

Norbert Wiener was born on November 26, 1894. He was the first of four children born to his parents, Leo Wiener and Bertha Kahn who were both of Jewish descent.  Leo Wiener was born in Byelostok, Russia and much of the records of his family genealogy were lost in World War II when the Nazi’s sacked the city.  He tried his hand at different professions in his early life but never moved far away from his interest in languages and was also known to be an adept amateur mathematician throughout his life; an attribute that ultimately played a large part in Norbert Wiener’s early mathematical foundation.  On what could only be described as a whim, Leo Weiner and a schoolmate decided to journey across the Atlantic to Central America.  Before they set sail though, his schoolmate decided against the trip and Leo Wiener was left on his own.  It was during the journey across the Atlantic that he began to learn the essentials of Spanish and English. He arrived in New Orleans to begin his life in America with only fifty cents in his pocket.  Leo Wiener essentially wandered about the states for a period of time persevering and excelling at a variety of odd jobs.  It was not until his arrival in Kansas City that he returned to his life of academia and began teaching at the high school level. As his career progressed he chose Philology as his discipline.  On this decision, and speaking to the seriousness of his father, Norbert Wiener wrote:

My father’s success in philology was unquestioned, but his sanguine temperament would have benefited under the discipline of a field {mathematics} in which discipline is automatic. (Prodigy 22)

It was also in Kansas City where he met his wife, Bertha Kahn and started his family.  Miss Bertha Kahn was born and raised in St. Joseph, Missouri and her family owned and operated a department store.  Her family was German-Jewish which played a small part in Bertha Kahn’s split with her family after her marriage to Mr. Wiener who was of Russian Jewish decent.

In his writings, Norbert Wiener had little to say about his mother, a fact that would lead one to believe that his father was the person in his life that he identified with the most.  However, on the subject of his mother, Wiener believed her to be the person that most influenced his father and shaped him into the person he was. Wiener wrote:

In my collisions with my father, dramatic as they were, I could generally recognize a principle which I had to respect, even when I was suffering from my father’s interpretation of it.  My mother was scarcely able to afford such luxuries.  When the husband is a zealot, the wife must be a conformist. How many unworldly scholars, whether Jews or Christians, must have depended for their very existence on their conformist wives! (Prodigy 28)

The Wiener family moved across the United States to the area around Cambridge, Massachusetts when Norbert was just a baby.  His father had furthered his career at the New England Conservatory and Boston University.  Later he obtained his first instructorship at Harvard teaching Slavic Languages and gradually progressed to professor until he retired 1930.

It was in the Cambridge area that Norbert Wiener started to blossom as the prodigy that he later became.  Some of his earliest memories included reading with his mother in the grass outside their home.  He states that he remembers hearing and reading at only three and half years old, works like Kipling’s Jungle Book and his mother’s favorite story “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” (Prodigy 34).  He also states that he remembers being taught French at a very early age by a maid that worked for the family, however, it did not take root. Wiener wrote:

What French I learned at this time I must have unlearned with equal rapidity, for when I studied French again in college at the age of twelve, no obvious trace of my former knowledge of the language remained. (Prodigy 33)

Wiener, when writing about his childhood, remembers a period of his life as feeling completely normal in the way a child grows up.  He writes about his early education and remembers having trouble with some forms of Math and Science. He excelled in most areas and his father took on the role of educator during the formative years of his learning.  He was very hard on the young Wiener and would scold him intensely when the answers were not correct or to his satisfaction. For the most part, he states that his education at the time consisted of reading through his father’s extensive library collection and gathering all the information that he could.  He had interest in all subject matters and was able to expand his thinking books. Genetic factors aside, he read so much during his early life that he damaged his eyesight and had to spend six months under doctor’s orders not to read at all.  However, on the opposite side of that, he remembers the adventurous childhood he had; the one that really matters to a boy and is something that shapes them into men, being outside and playing with friends.  Wiener writes about his time at the Peabody School where he had numerous friends which lasted after his father took over his education. He played and made memories of snowball fights, jungle gyms and armies of boys meeting up and pelting each other with stones.   Weiner even tells of a time that he and his friends (the King boys) decided to run away and fight in the war between the Armenians and the Turks.  He was caught early on by his father who promptly led him home to suffer ridicule for years, by both of his parents. He speaks of these diversions further and in more detail when he writes about the time that his family moved to Old Mill Farm, a place that even a child prodigy could get lost on the warmer days swimming in the pond with his sister and neighboring farm children. He spent much time being educated by his father but any time not spent learning was time outside where he captured all manner of creatures and spent time exploring the wonders of the area. (Prodigy 79-89)  On these times, Wiener wrote:

When I left Cambridge for Harvard, I broke up the acquaintanceships of my early childhood, and although I made new ones, in Ayer and later in Medford, I was never again to feel the continuity of so rich an environment of childhood friendships. (Prodigy 91)

In 1903, after getting educated by his father, Wiener was enrolled in high school. He was classified as a special student because he was only nine years of age.  It became clear, early on that he was well beyond the schooling of a normal freshman and was advanced to the senior class the following year. It was during the spring of his last year of high school that Weiner, then age 11, found his first love and spent a significant amount of time trying to impress her only to later realize, because of their age difference, the relationship could not be. Wiener graduated from high school in June of 1906.

In the fall of 1906, Wiener’s father decided that it was time to send him to college.  His father believed that a smaller school would be better for him so he decided against Harvard’s entrance examinations and settled on Tufts College instead.  While at Tufts, Wiener struggled a bit with his age and social situations that made him feel awkward.  He realized early on that his abilities in mathematics was, for the most part, beyond that of the University and decided to focus his attentions on other subjects.  Finding interest in biology, philosophy, and psychology kept Wiener motivated but he maintained his mathematics by studying theories and in three years completed his academic course load and obtained his degree in mathematics.  Of this, Wiener wrote:

 This does not represent quite as much of a triumph as it seems, for I had fewer distractions than the other boys.  Only the child can devote his whole life to uninterrupted study. (Prodigy 113)

After his graduation from Tufts, Weiner decided, even without his father’s full support, that he would start his graduate work in biology at Harvard.  It was during this first year that Wiener quickly realized that his physical clumsiness was often challenging for him.  Added to this was his poor eyesight though corrected was still causing him issues.  He further struggled with his social awkwardness, having not adjusted to his environment.  He was in fact brilliant but impatient and it showed in every detail of his work. Nearing the end of his first year it was clear that biology was not to be his chosen profession. On the advice of his father, Wiener took a scholarship with Cornell and decided to make his name as a philosopher.  He was only at Cornell for a year before his father ordered him to come home because of family matters.  Wiener’s education at Harvard was, half committed but he did finish is degree.  He wrote:

If my own dissertation had been the only piece of scientific I have ever produced, it would have been a most unsatisfactory ticket of entry to a career of learning. (Prodigy 174)

It was during his final year at Harvard that Wiener was granted a traveling fellowship and was able to secure a place at Cambridge University. It was here that Wiener was able to hone his craft in mathematics, working with G. H. Hardy and Bertrand Russell.  Wiener only stayed at Cambridge for half of the semester then traveled to Gottingen for the remainder of the term before returning to the United States.  Interestingly, while studying at Gottingen, he wrote a paper entitled Studies in Synthetic Logic.  This paper in Weiner’s own words was one of the best early pieces of research that he had done and became the foundation for his Docent Lectures a year later at Harvard. (Prodigy 212)

Wiener taught at Harvard and the University of Main between 1915 and 1917.  However, it was also during this time that the world was engaged in a war.  Wiener felt a strong urge to make a contribution to the effort and tried several times, unsuccessfully, to obtain a commission in the armed services.  When it became apparent to him that officer’s status was not to be, he tried to get into the service as a regular enlisted man.  This also proved difficult because of his eyesight and other physical shortcomings. Wiener finally settled for the R.O.T.C., which had been established at Harvard. Later he enlisted in the New York State Guard which led him to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds where he did work with new types of artillery.  In 1919 Wiener accepted his position at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and it was there that he made his career.  However, early on in his time at M.I.T., he did a volunteer turn as a police officer when the Boston Police regulars went on strike.  Wiener wrote:

I was sent with another recruit to help arrest a wife beater in a slum near the North Station.  I drew my revolver, but it was trembling like the tail of a friendly dog, and I must bless my guardian angel that it did not go off. (Prodigy 276)

With his career in policing behind him, Weiner continued his work at M.I.T where he also studied Brownian motion, theories of probability and Fourier Integral. Having combined these with engineering, they lead him to advances in the theory of communication and his own important theory of harmonic analysis, which was a foundation he reverted back to several times during his career.

During the 1920s, Wiener was instructing mathematics at M.I.T but continued to travel abroad.  He spent a great deal of time in Europe lecturing, working and studying with Bertrand Russell, Sir Geoffrey Taylor and many others.  It was Taylor’s work in theories of turbulence, important in aerodynamics and aviation, which brought Wiener to thoughts of averages over curves.  Ultimately, this led to his work on the Brownian motion and the Wiener Equation that he lectured on while at the Mathematical Congress in Strasbourg, France.  Little is written about Wiener’s early work but it also lead him to postulate the idea of another phenomenon, which he called the shot effect.  It is common for this theory to be skipped over when reading about Wiener.  It is early work of his and authors are quick to jump to his later working years to point out the advancements he made.  However, from a communications standpoint this work took into account the amount of electric current that could be run along a wire and through a vacuum tube before irregular noise could be measured.  Wiener found that the noise would limit the effect of the electrical device when it was heavily loaded.  Wiener himself stated that the working theory was a little early in terms of use, but was later to be vital to communications. He wrote:

In 1920, very little electrical apparatus was loaded to the point at which the shot effect becomes critical. However, the later development-first of broadcasting and then of radar and television-brought the shot effect to the point where it became the immediate concern of every communication engineer.  (Mathematician 40)

In 1926, Wiener married Maugeurite Engmann.  This was an arranged marriage that his parents set up.  They stayed together until his death, working and traveling extensively.  Wiener and his wife had two children Barbara and Margaret.  On the birth of his first daughter, Wiener stated that he was, “A very clumsy pupil in the art of babysitting and hanging out a long signal hoist of diapers.” (Mathematician 127)  Immediately following their marriage, they traveled to Switzerland and Italy on what was a delayed honeymoon.  During this time, Wiener continued to make contacts and networked with colleagues.  It was after the honeymoon that he was back to work and had received a fellowship to study in Gottingen where he collaborated with Harald Bohr.  He studied haphazard motion, periodogram analysis extension of Fourier series and Fourier integral theory.

In the early 1930s until December 1935, Wiener and a borrowed doctoral candidate, Yuk Wing Lee, began working together on a different approach of the Fourier series. Wiener’s first idea of an adjustable corrective network was completely raw and it was Lee, who was more of an electrical engineer that brought the idea into better focus.  An electrical network system was the final product and it was Lee again that made the most effort to bring the idea through to patent. Unfortunately, the apparatus that they had created was for a market that was still in its infancy, which forced them to find a buyer for their product.  Through a contact of Wieners, he was able to sell the apparatus to Bell Laboratories even before the patent was completed. Bell never did use the invention but held it against their competitors until the patent expired.  Since they had sold their rights, Wiener and Lee, who had formed a lasting friendship and worked together many years later, never found out if their ideas were followed to their execution. (Mathematician 135)

It is also this first patent experience that most likely led Wiener to never return to the invention side of his ideas.  He was always working and creating new ideas, but was quick to collaborate and share them with others for assistance, which would help him obtain the final product. Many times, he would start an idea and push them off on others to carry forward.  When speaking on the Patent Office and their system, Wiener wrote:

Here I must remark that the public that is interested in inventions but has had no direct experience of the Patent Office can have no adequate idea of the utter boredom of seeing an invention through the necessary stages of search and documentation…The result is that the inventor proceeds without any transitional stages from a game of ideas to a game of words.  The more he loves his invention for its own sake and the more he wishes to develop it, the more he finds himself frustrated by the unreal world of the Patent Office, in which he is forced to live for a term of months or years. (Mathematician 134)

During World War II, Wiener received a contract from the government’s National Defense Research Committee and began statistical research, which ultimately led to the study of mathematical aspects of guidance and control of anti-aircraft fire.  Wiener referred to this as prediction theory and it fundamentally followed a course of work that Wiener was already familiar with: the Wiener Measure. Envisioning the aircrafts path as a series of discrete measurements, Wiener and is collaborator, Julian Bigelow were able to find a mathematical correlation (calculus of variations) of where the flight path could continue. Their work was important to the war effort but led him further into time theory measurements and in 1949, produced another important theory known as the Wiener Filter.  The filtering of noise out of a signal, which Wiener had worked on, was also being worked on by Russian Mathematician, Andrey Kolmogorov.  Both were later given credit for the work, as they had independently come to similar conclusions.  Statistical filtering today still plays a role in radio transmission, computer vision and vehicle navigation among other applications. (Hardesty 2011)  Wiener was later to write a book on the work they had accomplished, known for years as the “Yellow Peril” because of the paper it was printed on. It became widely used by the military and later by servo-engineers and electrical communication men. Wiener wrote:

When the book was written, almost nobody thought of communication in these terms.  I think I am to be pardoned for a  certain pride in saying that the statistical approach to communication theory is now accepted almost everywhere. (Mathematician 262-3)

The work that Wiener did for the war effort began to trouble him in the years before the start of the Manhattan Project.  He was engrossed in his prediction theory but was asked by a group of men to give assistance on the project but declined to help in any way.  Wiener was quick to determine that the work they were doing had serious moral implications that he wanted no part of and was, “most happy to have no share in the responsibility for its development and later use.” (Mathematician 295)  The use of the atom bomb on Japan weighed heavily on Wiener and he was not afraid to express his feelings on the subject.  In 1947, he published an article in The Atlantic Monthly urging scientists to consider the ethical implication of their work.  Furthermore, he refused to accept any government funding or to work on military projects. (Conway, Siegelman 2004)  Wiener felt that the group of men who decided to turn the world upside down with the use of the atom bomb did not possess the intellect to see far enough into the future. The technology that the United States had created, and the Cold War that followed, threatened humanity by powerful technological advancements that had been made. Wiener wrote:

I wished-oh how I wished!- that I could be in a position to  take what was happening passively, and with a sincere acceptance of the wisdom of the policy makers and with an abdication of all  personal judgment. The fact is, however, that I had no reason to believe that the judgment of these men on the larger issues of the situation was superior to my own, whatever their technical information might be.  I knew that more than one of the high officials of science had one tenth my contacts with the scientists of other countries and of other standpoints and was in nowhere nearly as good a position to assess the world reaction to the bomb. (Mathematician 306)

In the years that followed the war, Wiener found himself working in a variety of directions.  He was continuously publishing and writing, as well as traveling, theorizing, lecturing and working with various scientists.  During these years, he worked on prosthesis, human brain waves activity and the ideas and theories of automated factories.  Wiener’s work in these fields led to the creation of Cybernetics, a term that was coined by Wiener himself, and has to this day been what many believe as the culmination of his life’s work.  Aspects of his early works such as Harmonic Analysis, prediction, movement and sound filtering all point to the creation of Cybernetics and it was Wiener’s mathematical insight that served as the basis to these ideas.  David Mindell, Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing and Director of MIT’s Program in Science, Technology and Society pointed out in his book on cybernetics that Wiener was:

  For a mathematician-and he was a quite an  accomplished mathematician-he had an unusual interest in   engineering and the engineering applications of what he was  doing.  And that is a very MIT thing. (Mindell 2002)

Throughout his years at M.I.T., he was known as the “Absent Minded Professor”. He would wander the halls of the school, with a book or papers in one hand and the other on the wall leading him in the direction of his next class.  He was once stopped by someone during a walk and after the conversation, he had asked which way he was heading. When given directions, he remarked, “Good! That means I’ve already had lunch” (Hardesty 2011).  More recent articles and reviews of his work include the names such as the “Dark Hero of the Information Age.”  This shows that his work was largely followed by others and the genius of Wiener inspired them to create and also work though his ideas. Many times, this would lead them to some logical conclusion of their own work.

Wiener published works extensively throughout his career.  His book on cybernetics was very popular at the time of its release.  In his later years, he wrote two autobiographies which included insight to his personality and feelings on his ideas, which he shared with others during the course of his career.  Wiener lectured all over the world and spent time in India, Europe, China and Mexico. He retired from M.I.T having become Institute Professor Emeritus. He was honored many times, and received numerous awards to include the National Medal of Science from President Johnson in 1964, the same year as his death.




Conway, Flo; Jim Siegelman. Dark Hero of the Information Age: In search of Norbert Wiener. New York : Basic Books, 2004.

Hardesty, Larry. “The Original Absent Minded Professor.” MIT Technology Review (2011): 2.

Mindell, David. Between Human and Machine. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

Wiener, Norbert. Ex-Prodigy. New York : Simon and Shuster, 1953.

—. I am a Mathematician. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1956.

Wikipedia. 14 May 2014. 14 05 2014 <>.





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to toolbar