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Frank George - a personal appreciation
I came across the name of Frank George in 1963, very soon after I discovered the existence of cybernetics, in my second year as an undergraduate student studying physics. Six years later I met him for the first time and then the next year I was working with him on one of his several research projects, this one being a Government and ICL supported investigation into the way site engineers diagnosed computer faults. Later still, in 1972, I joined the Department of Cybernetics at Brunel University as a lecturer where Frank was professor and head of department. I have remained both a colleague and a friend ever since. But now he has died and I, and his many friends, past students and colleagues will miss him greatly.
Frank Honeywill George was born on 2 May 1921 and died on 10 September 1997, leaving a very dear wife, Jacqueline, and two daughters. He was one of the British pioneers of cybernetics. I remember him telling me of the extraordinary intellectual excitement he experienced when he first read Norbert Wiener's newly published Cybernetics while he was up at Cambridge in the late 1940s. It was this book, which introduced the new science to the world, that changed Frank's life and led him to devote his exceptional ability and energy to cybernetics.
Frank had come to Cambridge late, like many who had been caught up in the war. Frank served in the RAF first as a fighter pilot and then as an instructor, and ended up as a flight lieutenant in the position of station adjutant. After the war he went to Sidney Sussex College and took a double first in mathematics and moral sciences.
His aim was to pursue cybernetics via an academic career but he realised, very early on, the significance of cybernetic thinking to industry and government and he also wanted to ensure that it would make its proper impact in these spheres.
His first academic post was at Bristol University in the Department of Philosophy and Psychology. He was there for 15 years, but this included sabbatical and study leave abroad on visiting professorships at McGill, Princeton and Stanford. He published widely, bringing cybernetics to the attention of other academics including philosophers and psychologists, and to people in industry, teaching and government. Throughout his academic career he supervised research students in cybernetics and so propagated the ideas and challenges of the field to new generations.
In 1964, Frank George left Bristol University to become managing director of Educational and Scientific Developments, a company set up to apply cybernetic ideas in training and learning to industry and education. In 1968 Tony Benn, the Minister of Technology, gave his backing to an initiative to form an Institute of Cybernetics. The idea for an institute had been promoted by another great British cybernetician, Stafford Beer, who was at that time involved with directing strategy for the International Publishing Corporation. With financial help from IPC the Institute was created and found a home at the recently established Brunel University at Uxbridge. Frank became head of the Institute and held a full-time chair in cybernetics, Gordon Pask had a part-time chair, and both started to attract research students from the UK, and from all over the world. The Institute flourished under Frank's leadership, and within a few years had been transformed into a full academic department of the university devoted solely to postgraduate work in cybernetics.
While stimulating and steering the Department's growth, Frank remained highly active in the field of industrial and commercial research work and also achieved a prodigious output of books, articles and journal papers. The Department of Cybernetics flourished at Brunel until the first wave of cutbacks in the university sector in the early 1980s when the received wisdom of the day viewed small departments (of less than about 15 academics) as uneconomical and recommended amalgamation. The Department of Cybernetics thus lost its independence and became a Division in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Electronics at Brunel. Frank, then over 60, decided the time had come to devote himself full-time to his writing and the editorship of Systems Research and Information Science, and The Journal of Intelligent Systems, both of which he had been instrumental in founding. He also continued as Associate Editor of Kybernetes, a journal he helped to found and to support and inspire for over 25 years.
Frank George's early book, The Brain as a Computer, first published in 1962 and later translated into many languages and also released as a second edition, had a great impact. It was written at a time when the new disciplines of cognitive psychology and cognitive science were emerging and it presented a powerful argument in support of both these fields by showing how cybernetic thinking and model-building could greatly enrich our understanding of complex human behaviour. Frank George's work was always closely associated with artificial intelligence, but he felt that AI was properly part of cybernetics and should not be separated off on its own. He saw early on the power of representing knowledge, and reasoning with it, using computers. From an early time he worked hard at communicating this message to a wide audience and he must be credited with alerting many influential people to the potential of computers in our lives.
Frank George published over 50 books; some were popular texts but many developed important and serious arguments. In his early work he placed much emphasis on the power of mathematical and logical models as a way of generating and clarifying understanding of complex systems. His background in philosophy, however, made him acutely aware of overstating the extent to which such systems, in particular minds and human social systems, could be taken as literally logical or computational entities.
On a personal level Frank George leaves a remarkable legacy. He supervised many research students and I think most will testify to the marvellous approach that he had. Frank always respected the intellectual independence and uniqueness of each of his research students. He knew that the key point about working for a PhD is that the individual has to find a way of becoming an original contributor to a research community and that just aping what others do is not the way to achieve this. Frank always offered encouragement and support for this difficult and personal journey and was often able to help over-stressed students get things in perspective by letting them see that research, however absorbing and important it might seem, was in fact only one part of the very rich existence we lead as human beings.
Memorial fund Professor Frank George
A group of family and friends of Professor George have set up a memorial fund to remember him, a man of academic excellence and a great human being. It is hoped to offer an annual prize for a first year student reading Moral Sciences or Mathematics at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, UK.
Professor George was an Exhibitioner in his first year in 1946, and it would seem to be a most fitting and lasting memorial to him.
Donations may be sent and cheques made payable to:
Professor Frank George Memorial Fundc/o John Chandler MA (Cantab) PhD3 Willow Grove, Welwyn Garden City, Herts AL8 7NA, UK.