Skip to main content Accessibility help
×
Home
Hostname: page-component-684899dbb8-gbqfq Total loading time: 0.277 Render date: 2022-05-29T08:49:15.339Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "useRatesEcommerce": false, "useNewApi": true }

The Birth of Information in the Brain: Edgar Adrian and the Vacuum Tube

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 February 2015

Justin Garson*
Affiliation:
Hunter College of the City University of New York E-mail: jgarson@hunter.cuny.edu

Argument

As historian Henning Schmidgen notes, the scientific study of the nervous system would have been “unthinkable” without the industrialization of communication in the 1830s. Historians have investigated extensively the way nerve physiologists have borrowed concepts and tools from the field of communications, particularly regarding the nineteenth-century work of figures like Helmholtz and in the American Cold War Era. The following focuses specifically on the interwar research of the Cambridge physiologist Edgar Douglas Adrian, and on the technology that led to his Nobel-Prize-winning research, the thermionic vacuum tube. Many countries used the vacuum tube during the war for the purpose of amplifying and intercepting coded messages. These events provided a context for Adrian's evolving understanding of the nerve fiber in the 1920s. In particular, they provide the background for Adrian's transition around 1926 to describing the nerve impulse in terms of “information,” “messages,” “signals,” or even “codes,” and for translating the basic principles of the nerve, such as the all-or-none principle and adaptation, into such an “informational” context. The following also places Adrian's research in the broader context of the changing relationship between science and technology, and between physics and physiology, in the first few decades of the twentieth century.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2015 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)

References

Adrian, Edgar D. 1913. “Wedensky Inhibition in Relation to the ‘All-Or-None’ Principle in Nerve.” Journal of Physiology 46:384412.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Adrian, Edgar D. 1926a. “The Impulses Produced by Sensory Nerve Endings. Part 1.” Journal of Physiology 61:4972.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Adrian, Edgar D. 1926b. “The Impulses Produced by Sensory Nerve Endings. Part 4. Impulses from Pain Receptors.” Journal of Physiology 62:3351.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Adrian, Edgar D. 1928. The Basis of Sensation: The Action of the Sense Organs. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.Google Scholar
Adrian, Edgar D. 1931. “Potential Changes in the Isolated Nervous System of Dytiscus Marginalis.” Journal of Physiology 72:132151.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Adrian, Edgar D. 1932. The Mechanism of Nervous Action: Electrical Studies of the Neurone. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Adrian, Edgar D., and Bronk, Detlev W.. 1928. “Apparatus for Demonstrating Nerve and Muscle Action Currents.” Journal of Physiology 66:13P-14P.Google Scholar
Adrian, Edgar D., and Bronk, Detlev W.. 1929a. “The Discharge of Impulses in Motor Nerve Fibres. Part I. Impulses in Single Fibres of the Phrenic Nerve.” Journal of Physiology 66:81101.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Adrian, Edgar D., and Bronk, Detlev W.. 1929b. “The Discharge of Impulses in Motor Nerve Fibres. Part II. The Frequency of Discharge in Reflex and Voluntary Contractions.” Journal of Physiology 67:119151.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Adrian, Edgar D., and Cooper, Sybil. 1925. “Action Currents in Sensory Nerve Fibers.” Journal of Physiology 60:42P-43P.Google Scholar
Adrian, Edgar D., and Forbes, Alexander. 1922. “The All-Or-Nothing Response of Sensory Nerve Fibers.” Journal of Physiology 56:301330.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Adrian, Edgar D., and Gelfan, S.. 1933. “Rhythmic Activity in Skeletal Muscle Fibres.” Journal of Physiology 78:271287.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Adrian, Edgar D., and Matthews, Rachel. 1927a. “The Action of Light on the Eye. Part I. Discharge of Impulses in the Optic Nerve and its Relation to the Electric Changes in the Retina.”Journal of Physiology 63:378414.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Adrian, Edgar D., and Matthews, Rachel. 1927b. “The Action of Light on the Eye. Part II. The Processes Involved in Retinal Excitation.” Journal of Physiology 64:279301.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Adrian, Edgar D., and Matthews, Rachel. 1928. “The Action of Light on the Eye. Part III. The Interaction of Retinal Neurons.” Journal of Physiology 65:273298.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Adrian, Edgar D., and Umrath, Karl. 1929. “The Impulse Discharge from the Pacinian Corpuscle.” Journal of Physiology 68:139154.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Adrian, Edgar D., and Zotterman, Yngve. 1926a. “Impulses from a Single Sensory End-Organ.” Journal of Physiology 61:8P.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Adrian, Edgar D., and Zotterman, Yngve. 1926b. “The Impulses Produced by Sensory Nerve Endings. Part 2. The Response of a Single End Organ.” Journal of Physiology 61:157171.Google ScholarPubMed
Adrian, Edgar D., and Zotterman, Yngve. 1926c. “The Impulses Produced by Sensory Nerve Endings. Part 3. Impulses Set Up by Touch And Pressure.” Journal of Physiology 61:465483.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Borck, Cornelius. 2005. “Writing Brains: Tracing the Psyche with the Graphical Method.” History of Psychology 8:7994.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Borck, Cornelius. 2008a. “Schreiben Lesen Rechnen. Edgar Douglas Adrian über Sinn und Sinnleere der Hirnschrift.” In Interesse für bedingtes Wissen, edited by Welsh, Caroline and Willer, Stefan, 5568. Paderborn: Fink.Google Scholar
Borck, Cornelius. 2008b. “Recording the Brain at Work: The Visible, The Readable, and The Invisible in Electroencephalography.” Journal of the History of the Neurosciences 17:367379.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Boring, Edwin G. 1950. A History of Experimental Psychology. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.Google Scholar
Bradley, John K., and Tansey, Elizabeth M.. 1996. “The Coming of the Electronic Age to the Cambridge Physiological Laboratory: E. D. Adrian's Valve Amplifier in 1921.” Notes and Records of the Royal Society 50 (2):217228.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Brain, Robert. 2002. “Representation on the Line: Graphic Recording Instruments and Scientific Modernism.” In From Energy to Information: Representation in Science, Technology, and Literature, edited by Clarke, Bruce and Henderson, Linda D., 155177. Stanford CA: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
Burch, George J. 1890. “On a Method of Determining the Value of Rapid Variations of a Difference of Potential by Means of the Capillary Electrometer.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London 48:89–93.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Cardwell, Donald. 1995. The Norton History of Technology. New York: W. W. Norton and Co.Google Scholar
Chaffee, Emory L. 1933. Theory of Thermionic Vacuum Tubes. New York: McGraw-Hill.Google Scholar
Clarke, Edwin, and Jacyna, Stephen. 1987. Nineteenth-Century Origins of Neuroscientific Concepts. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google ScholarPubMed
de Charms, R. Christopher, and Zador, Anthony. 2000. “Neural Representation and the Cortical Code.” Annual Review of Neuroscience 23:613–147.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
De Palma, Armando, and Pareti, Germana. 2007. “The Ways of Metaphor in Neuroscience, or Being on the Right or Wrong Track.” Nuncius 22:97214.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
du Bois-Reymond, Emil. 1886. Reden. Vol II. Lepzig: Veit & Comp.Google Scholar
Einthoven, Willem. 1894. “Lippmann's Capillar-Electrometer zur Messung schnell wechselnder Potentialunterschiede.” Archiv für die gesammte Physiologie des Menschen und der Thiere 56:528541.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Fenn, Wallace O. 1969. “Alexander Forbes 1882–1965.” Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences 41:113141.Google Scholar
Finger, Stanley. 2004. Minds Behind the Brain: A History of the Pioneers and Their Discoveries. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Fleming, John A. 1919. The Thermionic Valve and Its Developments in Radiotelegraphy and Telephony. London: The Wireless Press.Google Scholar
Fleming, John A. 1920. “The Thermionic Valve in Wireless Telegraphy and Telephony.” Nature 105:716720.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Forbes, Alexander. 1920. “Biophysics.” Science 52:331332.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Forbes, Alexander. 1922a. “Radio Compass Officer in Time of War.” The Open Road (May): 1722, 62.Google Scholar
Forbes, Alexander. 1922b. “The Interpretation of Spinal Reflexes in Terms of Present Knowledge of Nerve Conduction.” Physiological Review 2:361414.Google Scholar
Forbes, Alexander. 1924. The Radio Gunner. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.Google Scholar
Forbes, Alexander, and Thacher, Catharine. 1920. “Amplification of Action Currents with the Electron Tube in Recording with the String Galvanometer.” American Journal of Physiology 52:409471.Google Scholar
Forbes, Alexander, Cannon, Walter B., O’Connor, Johnson, Hopkins, Anne M., and Miller, Richard. 1926. “Muscular Rigidity with and without Sympathetic Innervation.” Archives of Surgery 13:303328.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Forman, Paul. 2010. “(Re)cognizing Postmodernity: Helps for Historians – of Science Especially.” Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte 33:157175.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Frank, Robert G. 1988. “The Telltale Heart: Physiological Instruments, Graphic Methods, and Clinical Hopes, 1854–1914.” In The Investigative Enterprise: Experimental Physiology in Nineteenth-Century Medicine, edited by Coleman, W. and Holmes, F. L., 211290. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
Frank, Robert G. 1994. “Instruments, Nerve Action, and the All-or-None Principle.” Osiris 9:208235.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Frank, Robert G., and Goetzl, Judith H.. 1978. “The J. H. B. Archive Report: The Alexander Forbes Papers.” Journal of the History of Biology 11:387393.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Garson, Justin. 2013. “Alexander Forbes, Walter Cannon, and Science-Based Literature.” In Progress in Brain Research Vol. 205: Literature, Neurology, and Neuroscience: Historical and Literary Connections, edited by Stiles, A., Finger, S. and Boller, F., 241256. Amsterdam: Elsevier.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gasser, Herbert S., and Erlanger, Joseph. 1922. “A Study of the Action Currents of Nerve with the Cathode Ray Oscillograph.” American Journal of Physiology 62:496524.Google Scholar
Gasser, Herbert S., and Newcomer, H. Sidney. 1921. “Physiological Action Currents in the Phrenic Nerve. An Application of the Thermionic Vacuum Tube to Nerve Physiology.” American Journal of Physiology 57:126.Google Scholar
Geison, Gerald L. 1973. “Keith Lucas.” In Dictionary of Scientific Biography, vol. VIII, edited by Gillispie, C. C., 532535. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.Google Scholar
Heims, Steve. J. 1991. The Cybernetics Group. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
Helmholtz, Hermann von. 1863. Die Lehre von den Tonempfindungen als physiologische Grundlage für die Theorie der Musik. Braunschweig: Friedrich Vieweg und Sohn.Google Scholar
Helmholtz, Hermann von. 1883. “Über die Methoden, kleinste Zeitheile zu messen, und ihre Anwendung für physiologische Zwecke.” In Gesammelte Schriften: Wissenschaftliche Abhandlungen. Vol. II, edited by Brüning, J., 862880. Leipzig: Veit & Comp.Google Scholar
Hodgkin, Alan. L. 1979. “Edgar Douglas Adrian, Baron Adrian of Cambridge.” Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 25:173.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Hodgkin, Alan. L., and Huxley, Andrew F.. 1939. “Action Potentials Recorded from Inside a Nerve Fibre.” Nature 144:710711.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Höber, Rudolf. 1919. “Ein Verfahren zur Demonstration der Aktionsströme.” Pflüger's Archiv für Physiologie 177:305312.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hunt, Bruce J. 1994. “Doing Science in a Global Empire: Cable Telegraphy and Victorian Physics.” In Victorian Science in Context, edited by Lightman, Bernard, 312333. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
Hunt, Bruce J. 2010. Pursuing Power and Light: Technology and Physics from James Watt to Albert Einstein. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
Kay, Lily E. 2000. Who Wrote the Book of Life? A History of the Genetic Code. Stanford: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
Kay, Lily E. 2001. “From Logical Neurons to Poetic Embodiments of Mind: Warren S. Mcculloch's Project in Neuroscience.” Science in Context 14:591614.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Keller, Evelyn Fox. 1995. Refiguring Life: Metaphors of Twentieth-Century Biology. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
Kevles, Daniel J., and Geison, Gerald L.. 1995. “The Experimental Life Sciences in the Twentieth Century.” Osiris 10:97121.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Kirkland, Kyle L. 2002. “High-Tech Brains: A History of Technology-Based Analogies and Models of Nerve and Brain Function.” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 45:212223.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Lenoir, Timothy. 1994. “Helmholtz and the Materialities of Communication.” Osiris 9:185207.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lucas, Keith. 1909. “On the Relation between the Electric Disturbance in Muscle and the Propagation of the Exrefd State.” Journal of Physiology 39:207227.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Lucas, Keith. 1912. “On a Mechanical Method of Correcting Photographic Records Obtained from the Capillary Electrometer.” Journal of Physiology 44:225242.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Lucas, Keith. 1917. The Conduction of the Nervous Impulse. London: Longman's, Green and Co.Google Scholar
MacKay, Donald M., and McCulloch, Warren S.. 1952. “The Limiting Information Capacity of a Neuronal Link.” Bulletin of Mathematical Biophysics 14:127135.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Marcum, James A. 2006. “‘Soup’ vs. ‘Sparks’: Alexander Forbes and the Synaptic Transmission Controversy.” Annals of Science 63:139156.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Miller, George A. 1953. “What Is Information Measurement?American Psychologist 8:311.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Otis, Laura. 2002. “The Metaphoric Circuit: Organic and Technological Communication in the Nineteenth Century.” Journal of the History of Ideas 63:105128.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Rieke, Fred, Warland, David, van Steveninck, Rob de Ruyter, and Bialek, William. 1997. Spikes: Exploring the Neural Code. Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
Sarkar, Sahotra. 1996. “Biological Information: A Skeptical Look at Some Central Dogmas of Molecular Biology.” In The Philosophy and History of Molecular Biology: New Perspectives, edited by Sarkar, S., 187231. Dordrecht: Kluwer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Sarkar, Sahotra. 2013. “Information in Animal Communication: When and Why Does It Matter?” In Animal Communication Theory: Information and Influence, edited by Stegmann, U., 189205. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Schmidgen, Henning. 2009. Die Helmholtz-Kurven: Auf der Spur der verlorenen Zeit. Berlin: Merve.Google Scholar
Shannon, Claude. 1948. “A Mathematical Theory of Communication.” Bell System Technical Journal 27:379423, 623656.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Shannon, Claude. 1949. “Communication Theory of Secrecy Systems.” Bell System Technical Journal 28:656715.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Thomson, Spencer. 1852. A Dictionary of Domestic Medicine and Household Surgery. London: Groombridge and Sons.Google Scholar
Van der Bijl, Hendrik J. 1920. The Thermionic Vacuum Tube and Its Applications. New York: McGraw-Hill.Google Scholar
Zotterman, Yngve. 1969. Touch, Tickle and Pain. Oxford: Pergamon Press.Google Scholar
11
Cited by

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure coreplatform@cambridge.org is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the @free.kindle.com or @kindle.com variations. ‘@free.kindle.com’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘@kindle.com’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

The Birth of Information in the Brain: Edgar Adrian and the Vacuum Tube
Available formats
×

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

The Birth of Information in the Brain: Edgar Adrian and the Vacuum Tube
Available formats
×

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

The Birth of Information in the Brain: Edgar Adrian and the Vacuum Tube
Available formats
×
×

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *