Control in the Cold War: the genesis and early years of the International Federation of Automatic Control

Bissell, Christopher (2013). Control in the Cold War: the genesis and early years of the International Federation of Automatic Control. In: 24th International Congress of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, 21-28 Jul 2013, Manchester, UK.



1956 was a turning point for the emerging discipline of automatic control. The approach known as classical control had emerged from WW2 as a result of collaboration between electronics, communications and mechanical engineers, predominantly in the USA and UK, but to a lesser extent in Germany. Developments in this area in the USSR were less significant, but an important novel approach to non-linear dynamics had been researched there in a control context since the 1930s.

At least eight conferences were held in Europe in 1956, including an international one in Paris in June. In retrospect, however, the seminal event was the conference in Heidelberg in September organized jointly by the two German engineering societies VDE / VDI. This drew wide international participation, including delegates from Eastern Europe and Japan; but perhaps most importantly it marked the inception of IFAC, the International Federation of Automatic Control.

Prompted by the growing internationalization of control engineering, and the Cold War climate of the mid 1950s, a number of delegates to the Heidelberg conference expressed interest in establishing a new, international, association. The driving force for this initiative came from G. Ruppel (Germany), R. Oldenburger (USA) and V. Broïda (France). A meeting of 25 interested participants was held and a resolution adopted to found “an international federation of automatic control [… with] the following objectives: 1. To facilitate the interchange of information in automatic control and to promote progress in this field. 2. To organize international congresses in this field.” A provisional committee was set up which met at the offices of the VDI/VDE specialist control group in Düsseldorf in April 1957, and IFAC came into being at a meeting in Paris in September that year. The first president was the American Harold Chestnut and the Vice-Presidents were the Russian A. M. Letov and the Frenchman V. Broïda. It was also agreed that Letov would be the second president and that the first IFAC Congress would be held in Moscow in 1960 – a remarkable international collaboration given the political climate of the time.

IFAC’s constitution provided for one National Member Organization (NMO) per nation state. Countries such as the USA and the UK with more than one technical society with interests in the field established new overarching NMOs such as the American and UK Automatic Control Councils. The only sticking point was Germany, whose divided status made this politically impossible, and not until 1971 were both East and West Germany allowed to be represented by separate NMOs. German interests, however, were supported from start as a result of the establishment of the IFAC secretariat initially in Düsseldorf.

The 1960 IFAC Moscow Congress was a huge affair, and an important event in the development of automatic control. A number of seminal papers in the new area of modern control were presented, perhaps the most famous being Kalman’s paper on his radical approach to linear filtering and prediction. It was also an opportunity for a meeting between East and West, even though Soviet suspicion limited informal contact between Russians and international delegates.
This paper will examine the early development of IFAC and the contribution it made to international collaboration in the field of automatic control during the Cold War.

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