Skip to main content
×
Home
    • Aa
    • Aa

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

  • Justin Garson (a1)
Argument
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.

Copyright
References
Hide All
Adrian Edgar D. 1913. “Wedensky Inhibition in Relation to the ‘All-Or-None’ Principle in Nerve.” Journal of Physiology 46:384412.
Adrian Edgar D. 1926a. “The Impulses Produced by Sensory Nerve Endings. Part 1.” Journal of Physiology 61:4972.
Adrian Edgar D. 1926b. “The Impulses Produced by Sensory Nerve Endings. Part 4. Impulses from Pain Receptors.” Journal of Physiology 62:3351.
Adrian Edgar D. 1928. The Basis of Sensation: The Action of the Sense Organs. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
Adrian Edgar D. 1931. “Potential Changes in the Isolated Nervous System of Dytiscus Marginalis.” Journal of Physiology 72:132151.
Adrian Edgar D. 1932. The Mechanism of Nervous Action: Electrical Studies of the Neurone. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Adrian Edgar D., and Bronk Detlev W.. 1928. “Apparatus for Demonstrating Nerve and Muscle Action Currents.” Journal of Physiology 66:13P-14P.
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.
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.
Adrian Edgar D., and Cooper Sybil. 1925. “Action Currents in Sensory Nerve Fibers.” Journal of Physiology 60:42P-43P.
Adrian Edgar D., and Forbes Alexander. 1922. “The All-Or-Nothing Response of Sensory Nerve Fibers.” Journal of Physiology 56:301330.
Adrian Edgar D., and Gelfan S.. 1933. “Rhythmic Activity in Skeletal Muscle Fibres.” Journal of Physiology 78:271287.
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.
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.
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.
Adrian Edgar D., and Umrath Karl. 1929. “The Impulse Discharge from the Pacinian Corpuscle.” Journal of Physiology 68:139154.
Adrian Edgar D., and Zotterman Yngve. 1926a. “Impulses from a Single Sensory End-Organ.” Journal of Physiology 61:8P.
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.
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.
Borck Cornelius. 2005. “Writing Brains: Tracing the Psyche with the Graphical Method.” History of Psychology 8:7994.
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.
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.
Boring Edwin G. 1950. A History of Experimental Psychology. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
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.
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.
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.
Cardwell Donald. 1995. The Norton History of Technology. New York: W. W. Norton and Co.
Chaffee Emory L. 1933. Theory of Thermionic Vacuum Tubes. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Clarke Edwin, and Jacyna Stephen. 1987. Nineteenth-Century Origins of Neuroscientific Concepts. Berkeley: University of California Press.
de Charms R. Christopher, and Zador Anthony. 2000. “Neural Representation and the Cortical Code.” Annual Review of Neuroscience 23:613–147.
De Palma Armando, and Pareti Germana. 2007. “The Ways of Metaphor in Neuroscience, or Being on the Right or Wrong Track.” Nuncius 22:97214.
du Bois-Reymond Emil. 1886. Reden. Vol II. Lepzig: Veit & Comp.
Einthoven Willem. 1894. “Lippmann's Capillar-Electrometer zur Messung schnell wechselnder Potentialunterschiede.” Archiv für die gesammte Physiologie des Menschen und der Thiere 56:528541.
Fenn Wallace O. 1969. “Alexander Forbes 1882–1965.” Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences 41:113141.
Finger Stanley. 2004. Minds Behind the Brain: A History of the Pioneers and Their Discoveries. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Fleming John A. 1919. The Thermionic Valve and Its Developments in Radiotelegraphy and Telephony. London: The Wireless Press.
Fleming John A. 1920. “The Thermionic Valve in Wireless Telegraphy and Telephony.” Nature 105:716720.
Forbes Alexander. 1920. “Biophysics.” Science 52:331332.
Forbes Alexander. 1922a. “Radio Compass Officer in Time of War.” The Open Road (May): 1722, 62.
Forbes Alexander. 1922b. “The Interpretation of Spinal Reflexes in Terms of Present Knowledge of Nerve Conduction.” Physiological Review 2:361414.
Forbes Alexander. 1924. The Radio Gunner. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
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.
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.
Forman Paul. 2010. “(Re)cognizing Postmodernity: Helps for Historians – of Science Especially.” Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte 33:157175.
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.
Frank Robert G. 1994. “Instruments, Nerve Action, and the All-or-None Principle.” Osiris 9:208235.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Heims Steve. J. 1991. The Cybernetics Group. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Helmholtz Hermann von. 1863. Die Lehre von den Tonempfindungen als physiologische Grundlage für die Theorie der Musik. Braunschweig: Friedrich Vieweg und Sohn.
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.
Hodgkin Alan. L. 1979. “Edgar Douglas Adrian, Baron Adrian of Cambridge.” Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 25:173.
Hodgkin Alan. L., and Huxley Andrew F.. 1939. “Action Potentials Recorded from Inside a Nerve Fibre.” Nature 144:710711.
Höber Rudolf. 1919. “Ein Verfahren zur Demonstration der Aktionsströme.” Pflüger's Archiv für Physiologie 177:305312.
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.
Hunt Bruce J. 2010. Pursuing Power and Light: Technology and Physics from James Watt to Albert Einstein. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Kay Lily E. 2000. Who Wrote the Book of Life? A History of the Genetic Code. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Kay Lily E. 2001. “From Logical Neurons to Poetic Embodiments of Mind: Warren S. Mcculloch's Project in Neuroscience.” Science in Context 14:591614.
Keller Evelyn Fox. 1995. Refiguring Life: Metaphors of Twentieth-Century Biology. New York: Columbia University Press.
Kevles Daniel J., and Geison Gerald L.. 1995. “The Experimental Life Sciences in the Twentieth Century.” Osiris 10:97121.
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.
Lenoir Timothy. 1994. “Helmholtz and the Materialities of Communication.” Osiris 9:185207.
Lucas Keith. 1909. “On the Relation between the Electric Disturbance in Muscle and the Propagation of the Excited State.” Journal of Physiology 39:207227.
Lucas Keith. 1912. “On a Mechanical Method of Correcting Photographic Records Obtained from the Capillary Electrometer.” Journal of Physiology 44:225242.
Lucas Keith. 1917. The Conduction of the Nervous Impulse. London: Longman's, Green and Co.
MacKay Donald M., and McCulloch Warren S.. 1952. “The Limiting Information Capacity of a Neuronal Link.” Bulletin of Mathematical Biophysics 14:127135.
Marcum James A. 2006. “‘Soup’ vs. ‘Sparks’: Alexander Forbes and the Synaptic Transmission Controversy.” Annals of Science 63:139156.
Miller George A. 1953. “What Is Information Measurement?American Psychologist 8:311.
Otis Laura. 2002. “The Metaphoric Circuit: Organic and Technological Communication in the Nineteenth Century.” Journal of the History of Ideas 63:105128.
Rieke Fred, Warland David, van Steveninck Rob de Ruyter, and Bialek William. 1997. Spikes: Exploring the Neural Code. Cambridge: MIT Press.
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.
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.
Schmidgen Henning. 2009. Die Helmholtz-Kurven: Auf der Spur der verlorenen Zeit. Berlin: Merve.
Shannon Claude. 1948. “A Mathematical Theory of Communication.” Bell System Technical Journal 27:379423, 623656.
Shannon Claude. 1949. “Communication Theory of Secrecy Systems.” Bell System Technical Journal 28:656715.
Thomson Spencer. 1852. A Dictionary of Domestic Medicine and Household Surgery. London: Groombridge and Sons.
Van der Bijl Hendrik J. 1920. The Thermionic Vacuum Tube and Its Applications. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Zotterman Yngve. 1969. Touch, Tickle and Pain. Oxford: Pergamon Press.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Science in Context
  • ISSN: 0269-8897
  • EISSN: 1474-0664
  • URL: /core/journals/science-in-context
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *
×

Metrics

Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 7
Total number of PDF views: 44 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 353 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 20th October 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.