Madcap genius

What were the 1949 “leading thinkers at the London School of Economics” to make of New Zealand inventor Bill Phillips’ hydraulic water system used to predict the economy, wonders New York Times’ columnist Steven Strogatz. “Pacing back and forth, chain smoking in front of the luminaries” Phillips’ machine “worked perfectly that day at the L.S.E., and soon attracted worldwide interest. Copies of the ‘Moniac,’ as it became known in the United States, were built and sold to Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, Ford Motor Company and the Central Bank of Guatemala, among others. In all, it is thought that only 14 Phillips machines were ever built. Though it’s tempting to view the Phillips machine as a relic of a bygone era, in one way it’s just the opposite; there’s something about it as fresh as the day it began gurgling. Look at its plumbing diagram. It’s a network of dynamic feedback loops. In this sense the Phillips machine foreshadowed one of the most central challenges in science today: the quest to decipher and control the complex, interconnected systems that pervade our lives.”

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