, Volume 14, Issue 3-4, pp 314-330

Early-connectionism machines

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In this paper I put forward a reconstruction of the evolution of certain explanatory hypotheses on the neural basis of association and learning that are the premises of connectionism in the cybernetic age and of present-day connectionism. The main point of my reconstruction is based on two little-known case studies. The first is the project, published in 1913, of a hydraulic machine through which its author believed it was possible to simulate certain “essential elements” of the plasticity of nervous connections. The author, S. Bent Russell, was an engineer deeply influenced by the neurological hypotheses on nervous conduction of Herbert Spencer, Max Meyer and Edward L. Thorndike. The second is the project, published in 1929, of an electromechanical machine in which the author, the psychologist J.M. Stephens, believed it was possible to embody Thorndike's law of effect. Thus both Bent Russell and Stephens referred to the principles of learning that Thorndike defined as “connectionist”. Their attempt was that of simulating by machines at least certain simple aspects of inhibition, association and habit formation that are typical of living organisms. I propose to situate their projects within the frame of thediscovery of a simulative (modelling) methodology which I believe might be considered an important topic of the “Culture of the Artificial”. Certain more recent steps toward such a methodology made by both connectionism of the 1950s and present-day connectionism are briefly pointed out in the paper.