A Short History of the Concept of Feedback
This chapter is an excerpt from No More Feedback: Cultivate Consciousness at Work, the first in a series of books on toxic practices in the workplace. Read the introduction and previous chapter here on Medium, and find links to purchase the full book here.
The term feedback originated in the physical world of regulatory mechanisms. In particular, it was first used to describe closed (mechanical) systems in which dangerous or expensive flows of energy, fuels, or fluids are regulated in order to ensure safety, quality, and quantity. We are familiar with many of these systems in our everyday lives. One example is the gas pump, which shuts off the automatic flow of fuel to prevent overflow when we’re filling our cars. A simple feedback mechanism in the nozzle’s handle responds to a change in pressure and instantly closes the valve when a car’s tank is full.
Another example is an electric pressure cooker, which shuts off when its valve can’t release pressure fast enough. And these days most of us have thermostats in our homes that regulate furnaces in order to sustain comfortable air temperatures. Feedback mechanisms are pervasive in the mechanical world and very useful. Their only purpose is to stop something rapidly and certainly from continuing to flow and then to allow it to start flowing again, when appropriate.
Although feedback systems have existed since antiquity, it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that the notion was recognized as a universal abstraction or concept, “to feed back.” At that time, the phrase described only the action of “returning to an earlier position” within a mechanical process. In the early twentieth century, Karl Braun referred to the unanticipated coupling between components of an electronic circuit as “feed-back.” Within a decade of this use, audio feedback — the painful screech we hear when a microphone is aimed toward an amplifier — had been named, bringing the current term into the dictionary. And thus for most of the first half of the century, feedback was defined as a specific type of mechanical action or effect.
By the 1950s, feedback had become a concept of interest to theorists, and as such had acquired a more precise…