Brief History of Control

Automatic control Systems were first developed over two thousand years ago. The first feedback control device on record is thought to be the ancient water clock of Ktesibios in Alexandria Egypt around the third century B.C. It kept time by regulating the water level in a vessel and, therefore, the water flow from that vessel. This certainly was a successful device as water clocks of similar design were still being made in ~Baghdad when the Mongols captured the city in 1258 A.D. A variety of automatic devices have been used over the centuries to accomplish useful tasks or simply to just entertain. The latter includes the automata, popular in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, featuring dancing figures that would repeat the same task over and over again; these automata are examples of open-loop control. Milestones among feedback, or "closed-loop" automatic control devices, include the temperature regulator of a furnace attributed to Drebbel, circa 1620, and the centrifugal flyball governor used for regulating the speed of steam engines by James Watt in 1788.

In his 1868 paper "On Governors", J. C. Maxwell (who discovered the Maxwell electromagnetic field equations) was able to explain instabilities exhibited by the flyball governor using differential equations to describe the control system. This demonstrated the importance and usefulness of mathematical models and methods in understanding complex phenomena, and signaled the beginning of mathematical control and systems theory. Elements of control theory had appeared earlier but not as dramatically and convincingly as in Maxwell's analysis.

Control theory made significant strides in the next 100 years. New mathematical techniques made it possible to control, more accurately, significantly more complex dynamical systems than the original flyball governor. These techniques include developments in optimal control in the 1950's and 1960's, followed by progress in stochastic, robust, adaptive and optimal control methods in the 1970's and 1980's. Applications of control methodology have helped make possible space travel and communication satellites, safer and more efficient aircraft, cleaner auto engines, cleaner and more efficient chemical processes, to mention but a few.