Ştefan Odobleja

Ştefan Odobleja was born on October 13, 1902, in Izvorul Aneştilor in Mehedinti County in Romania. Although his parents were poor and illiterate peasants he managed to attend high school in Drobeta Turna Severin. After high school he went to the Military-Medical Institute of Bucharest where he received a bursary to study at the Faculty of Medicine. He qualified as a general physician and worked as a medical doctor across several towns and villages in Romania. It was not a well-paid job and Odobleja spent most of his life in relative poverty. Despite his hardships he was a hard worker and has left us many of his writings.

Commemorative cancel from the National Conference on Cybernetics 20-11-1998
showing both Ştefan Odobleja and Norbert Wiener

Psychologie Consonantiste

Odobleja’s major work is his 900 pages Psihologia consonantistă si cibernetica which was published in Paris in 1938 (vol. I) and 1939 (vol. II) and thus usually referred to by its French title Psychologie consonantiste. The Romanian word consonantistă has no direct translation in English. In general it is Norbert Wiener who is considered the founding father of cybernetics – he also coined the word “cybernetics” which is derived from the Greek word kybernetes (steersman). Cybernetics is a science that studies the organization, communication and control in complex systems by using circular (i.e. feedback) mechanisms. Odobleja must be considered as one of the forerunners in cybernetics as he was the first to consider the feedback system as a universal law. He considered cybernetics as originating in psychology and gave many examples of it, like in language: “The image evokes the spoken word; in its turn, the spoken word evokes the image". In the world of computers the term cybernetics refers to the control of systems by a computer through the use of continuous feedback. One of its applications is in computerized warfare where a missile is guided by computerized steering while receiving continuous feedback regarding its position in respect to its intended target which in turn affects the computerized steering mechanism again.

Yervand Kochar’s “The Muse of Cybernetics” (1972) is housed in the gardens
of the Yerevan Computer Research and Development Institute in Armenia

The publication of Psychologie consonantiste drew only limited interest, possibly because it appeared just before World War II. When he presented a paper under the same name at the International Congress of Military Medicine in Bucharest in 1939 its title even confused most of the attendants. The Romanian communist government had little understanding of the subject and in the seventies even declared cybernetics a science of capitalist nature. Odobleja, being its main advocate, was put under surveillance and home arrest. The electricity to his house was disconnected to dissuade him from writing. He battled to obtain paper for his writings and often wrote his thoughts on the blank spaces in communist propaganda papers.

When Ştefan Odobleja died in poverty on September 4, 1978, his son put the epitaph “Father of Cybernetics” on his tomb stone, much to the Romanian government’s chagrin.

Odobleja’s legacy

It was only in 1982 that a Romanian version of his book was published. Today his stature in Romania has been redeemed and one finds numerous schools and streets in Romania named in his honor. The largest Romanian university, the Academia de Studii Economice in Bucharest, now has a Cybernetics department. In 1982 a group of scientists founded the Cybernetics Academy “Ştefan Odobleja”, a Lugano, Switzerland based forum to promote scientific development and a better understanding of general cybernetics. In 1990 the Romanian Academy of Science elected Odobleja posthumously as honorary member.

Romania has issued two postal stationery items to honor its famous son. In 1988 a postal envelope was issued to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his Psychologie consonantiste and in 2001 a postal card was issued carrying Odobleja’s picture. In 2011, Romania issued a stamp commemorating Odobleja.

© Wobbe Vegter, 2009

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