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Biography: W. Ross Ashby (1903-1972)

Shortly after Ross died, his wife Rosebud discovered a small 60 page notebook. It contains autobiographical information that Ross wrote between 1951 and 1955. On the first page, Ross quoted from Hamlet Act 1, Scene II:

"Passing through nature..." Notes on which any true biography of W.R.A. should be based. (Hamlet Act 1, Scene 2)

This biography was written by Ross's daughter, Jill, based on that notebook, her genealogical research, and her memories.

Contents Top

Ross's Childhood and Family Contents

1905 Ross's photo in a pendant.
1906 Ross's photo in a pendant.

William Ross Ashby was always known as Ross. He was born on 6th September 1903 in a rented upstairs flat at 28a, Chalsey Road, Brockley, Lewisham, London. His father, William Ross Chamberlin Ashby, known as Will, was 23 and an Assistant Manager of an Advertising Agency at the time. From the earliest Ross could remember his father was extremely ambitious for him to become a famous barrister or a famous surgeon though he had no ancestors who were. By the time that Ross’s sister, Dorothy, was born seventeen months later, Will was a Commercial Traveler with DeWitts Pharmaceutical Company and later a very successful Manager of their Overseas Sales.

1905 Ross with his father, William Ross Chamberlain Ashby.
1905 Ross with his father.
1905 Christmas. Ross with Dorothy, his only sibling 17 months his junior.
1905 Christmas.
Dorothy and Ross.

Ross was born the day before his mother, Florence Agnes’s 27th birthday. Her father, grandfather and great grandfather were all named Henry Lemmon and were Master Watch Makers in London. Will’s father was a Hosier Buyer until about the time his wife and her five older siblings each inherited about £2300 in 1889 from their father William Ross. William Ross was a Ball Maker at least until he was 40 and then a General Dealer and later an Iron Merchant. A Ball Maker was a person who dipped a hollow rod into molten glass to mould and pass to a glass blower. He was probably illiterate because when he married in 1840 he did not sign his name, but in 1867 he patented a composition that would “prevent the encrustation of boilers”. His son, Arthur, became a supplier to Her Majesty’s Government and used the Royal cipher on documents. Ross and Dorothy were William and Florence’s only children.

For more information about Ross's ancestors, see his family tree.

1905 Ross's mother, Florence.
1915 Ross's mother, Florence.

Schooling and Scouts Contents

1911 Ross aged 7 with his Mother, Dorothy, uncle Ernie and Mr. Puslove at Margate.
1911 Ross with his Mother, Dorothy, uncle Ernie Ashby and Mr. Puslove at Margate.

Ross began his education at Stillness Road School, Brockley, Lewisham, London, then from the age of 7-11 he was educated at a very small private school called St. Margaret's, four doors away from the small rented terraced house where the family lived in Hildaville Drive, Westcliffe-on-Sea - 30 miles east of London. In Ross’s notebook he described education there as ‘trifling’ and he spent much time with the couple’s youngest son who was three years his senior, “We drifted and fooled about and chatted idly.”

Ross failed the entrance exam to the City of London School and was sent to a local school, Worcester College, under Ulysses Walker where education “was much more business like”.

1911-1917 St. Margaret's, Hildaville Drive, Westcliffe-on-Sea.
Hildaville Drive, Westcliffe-on-Sea.
1915 Ross in his Scout uniform with bagpipes.
1915 Ross in his parading uniform.
Ross in his scout uniform with bagpipes.
Ross in his scout uniform with bagpipes.
Ross's Scout uniform jacket.
Ross's scout uniform jacket.

In 1914 while at Westcliffe-on-Sea on the Thames Estuary, Ross’s father founded the 1st Chalkwell Bay Highland Scout Group. He thought his ancestors came from the highlands of Scotland though no evidence has yet been found. In 1934 the group had to drop “Highland” from its title and the wearing of kilts and sporrans as it was not in Scotland.

Ross dutifully passed all the necessary proficiency badges and became the youngest King’s Scout at the time. To become a King’s Scout a boy had first to be a First Class Scout which meant passing ten tests, and then pass four more from a list of seven, one of which had to be the Pathfinder Badge. The family still have Ross's scout uniform jacket, which has twenty-two hand-embroidered test badges on it.

1917-21. Ross Ashby attended the Edinburgh Academy, Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo taken in 1955.
1917-21. The Edinburgh Academy, Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo by Ross, 1955.

In September 1917 Ross, with his mother and sister moved 400 miles north to a flat in Edinburgh in Scotland to start 4 years as a day boy at Edinburgh Academy. During this time, his father was living in Croydon, Surrey.

1919-21. Marchment Crescent flat, Edinburgh Ross Ashby shared with his motherand sister. Photo taken 1955.
1919-21. Marchment Crescent, Edinburgh. Photo by Ross, 1955.

University and Medical School Contents

Sidney Sussex College Chapel Court.
Sidney Sussex College Chapel Court.

Ross spent 1921-'24 at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge, England. He lived in lodgings, became interested in puzzles, continued his interest in astronomy, which he started as a boy, and gained a B.A. in Zoology. He went on to study Medicine at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London. While at Medical School he was also teaching himself advanced mathematics, and in May 1928 he started a Journal that he continued for the rest of his life. Ross makes it clear in the autobiographical notebook that what he recorded in his journal had no relation to his daily work. His journal was his retreat away from the realities of life where he would daydream about the brain and where he could "... weave delightful patterns of pure thought untroubled by social, financial and other distractions.".

Ross aged about 21.
Ross aged about 21.

1931 Married Rosebud Contents

Rosebud Ashby 1931. Ross Ashby 1931.
1931 Rosebud and 28 year old Ross.

In November 1926, Ross’s sister Dorothy introduced him to her friend and workmate Elsie Maud Thorne who was then known as “Prickles”. They worked together in the Millinery Department of Liberty’s in Regent Street, London. Ross did not like her nickname and started calling her Rosebud but few outside the family were ever allowed to use it. She was always either ‘Mrs Ashby’ or ‘Ash’.

Ross was employed as a Psychiatrist at the Leavesdon Mental Hospital in Hertfordshire from 1930-'36.

Ross and Rosebud had a very quiet wedding in June 1931 in Hornsey London attended only by their parents and they moved into a detached fully-furnished three bed-roomed house Merrow Down, Kings Langley in Hertfordshire, a wedding present from Ross's father. Their first daughter, Jill, was born at home in October 1932. Sally followed in June 1934 and Ruth in December 1935.

1931 June 12. Just married.
12 June 1931. Just married.

1931-'33 Home Movies Contents

1931: Rosebud and Ross having fun on the beach in Eastbourne.       1933: On Ross's 30th birthday, with baby Jill.

1936-'47 St Andrew’s Mental Hospital Contents

It is stated in the Hospital archives that Ross started work in 1936 as a Pathologist, Bacteriologist and Biochemist at £625 per year. In the Annual Report in January 1938, the superintendent Dr Rambaut, after giving details of some of the research Ross was doing added “Dr Ashby has also commenced a study of the theory of organization as applied to the nervous system...” He was very interested in Ross’s ideas but sadly died suddenly and was followed by Dr Tennent who did not mention Ross in any of his Annual Reports. Ross mentions him in his journal on page 1182.

On 22nd September 1939, on journal page 603, Ross wrote that he had the feeling that he was "near the solution" but was dithering and questioned whether he actually wanted to find it. Then in November 1940 Ross had a strange illness that did not conform to any textbook diagnosis. For weeks after the illness he was full of wonderful ideas about the theory of group organization. On page 858, he wrote about the illness:

Was it febrile reaction to enormous cortical readjustment?
I don't know. But I felt as if I had "swallowed a rainbow".
And the next page
[859-860] contains the essential discovery.

The following July (pages 936-939) he explains his findings and how it means his wonderful dream world would have to come into the open and become public property. It was a great dilemma for him at the time.

Ross wrote page 1705 in red ink, recording that it was a red letter day because J.A. Carroll, Professor of Philosophy (Mathematical Physics) at Aberdeen University stayed the evening and night of 10th July 1944, and was convinced by Ross's paper "The physical origin of adaptation by trial and error". Professor Carroll and Ross were at Sidney Sussex College at the same time. They also shared an interest in astronomy.

1936-'47 Green Ridges, Church Way, Weston Favell, Northampton Contents

In December 1936, the family moved into the house that Ross and Rosebud designed. Rosebud was thrifty, a good homemaker and a good cook, and thoroughly enjoyed gardening and designing and making most of the children's and her own clothes. For many years she grew fruit and vegetables for the family, and kept chickens, ducks, and bees.

1939 Green Ridges back garden still in the making.
Green Ridges back garden still in the making.
1937 Rosebud Ashby, Ross Ashby and his father, with daughters, Ruth, Sally, and Jill Ashby.
1937 Rosebud, Ross and his father, with Ruth, Sally, and Jill.
1937 June. Ross off for the day with Ruth, aged 18 months.
1937 June. Ross with Ruth.
1941. Ruth, Sally and Jill Ashby leaning on the wall.
1941. Ruth, Sally and Jill.
1943. Rosebud and the first chickens.
1943. Rosebud and the first chickens.

1945-'46 Royal Army Medical Corps, India Contents

1945 September. Major Ross Ashby aged 42. 41 b.g.h. Jalahali, India.
1945 September. Ross in Jalahali, India.

In March 1945, aged 41, Ross was drafted for Emergency Military Service as a Pathologist in the Royal Army Medical Corps and soon rose to the rank of Major. He went to India in May 1945 on board S.S. Bermuda, was opposite Algiers on VE day and spent almost a year in Poona and Jalallahi, Bangalore. He quite enjoyed it but was invalided back to England but not out of the Army. It is not know why. In his notebooks Ross mentions having problems with an enlarged heart.

Ross was not religious. On his Army application form in March 1945, against “religion”, he wrote in large capital letters “AGNOSTIC”. In June 1945 in Poona, on page 1956 of his journal, he wrote: "Having decided (Heaven forgive me, but it is my conviction) to follow in Darwin’s footsteps. I bought his autobiography to get some hints on how to do it."

1945. Major Ross Ashby aged 41.
1945. Major
W. Ross Ashby.

1946-'47 The Homeostat Contents

In November 1946, on page 2072, Ross recorded his first design for an "Isomorphism making machine". In late 1947, Denis Bannister became Ross’s Laboratory Assistant for just over a year until he was called up for National Service and much later became Ross’s son-in-law. Their main work was researching enzymes but in spare time over about three months and as a definite sideline, they built the Homeostat using four ex-RAF bomb control units, valves, and liquid-filled, magnetically-driven potentiometers.

On page 2094, Ross described the design of the units:

Its principle is that it uses multiple coils in a milliammeter & uses the needle movement to dip in a trough carrying a current, so getting a potential which goes to the grid of a valve, the anode of which provides an output current."

In the same month, Alan Turing wrote a letter to Ross advising him to implement a simulation on the ACE computer instead of building a special machine.

On 13 March 1948, on page 2433, Ross recorded his gratitude to Denis and to Graham White who came over from The Burden Institute to help. Many years later, Denis confirmed that only one Homeostat was built and that it was definitely constructed at Barnwood House Hospital. A story that it was built on Mrs Ashby’s kitchen table must have been a joke, because the kitchen in Windon House was very small, with no space for even a small table. Even if there had been enough space, Rosebud would never have allowed such a thing in her kitchen.

Three days later, Ross wrote on page 2435:

Triumph! The machine of p 2432 the "automatic homeostat" was completed today after some wrong wirings, a burn-out due to shorting, delay for fitting fuses everywhere & finally an actual working this evening.
After all the trouble, it works.

The Homeostat received much publicity. It was more prominently featured on the front page of The Herald than the announcement that four-week old Prince Charles had been named and was to be christened. In January 1949, in an article titled "The Thinking Machine", Time magazine described the Homeostat as "the closest thing to a synthetic brain so far designed by man". For more information, see The Electronic Brain.

Denis recollects that the Homeostat was very heavy and that he helped Ross take it to various meetings. Ross demonstrated it at the Ratio Club and the 9th Macy Conference. In 1961, Ross took it with him to the Biological Computing Laboratory, University of Illinois and left it there when he retired in 1970. Apparently, it was damaged soon after that when the area where it was being kept was flooded.

Thumbnails of all journal pages that Ross indexed under the keyword 'Homeostat' can be viewed on the Homeostat thumbs view page. In addition, the following journal pages (which were not indexed under 'Homeostat') contain newspaper clippings that relate to the Homeostat and a BBC radio broadcast about "The Mechanical Brain".

Circuit diagram for the Homeostat.
Circuit diagram for the Homeostat.

Ross next to the Homeostat.
Ross next to the Homeostat.

The Homeostat.
The Homeostat.

Detail of the Homeostat's quadruple coil electromagnet.
Quadruple coil electromagnet.

1947-'59 Windon House, Maisemore, Near Gloucester Contents

In March 1947, when England was in the throes of a very severe winter and with snow on the ground, the family moved to rambling Windon House in the village of Maisemore, three miles from Gloucester, where Ross was due to be employed at Barnwood House Private Mental Hospital. It was intended to be a temporary home, but they actually lived there for 12 years.

Windon House, Maisemore.
1948. Ross Ashby aged 45.
1948. Ross aged 45.
1948. Ross Ashby aged 45.
1948. Ross, Sally, Ruth, and Jill. Cheddar Gorge, Somerset.
1951. Rosebud and Ross Ashby on holiday.
1951. Rosebud and Ross on holiday.
~1954. Ross Ashby in his 6 month old Triumph TR2, visiting Turner McLardy.
Ross in his 6 month old Triumph TR2, visiting Turner McLardy.

1947-'59 Barnwood House Hospital Contents

1955 March. Ross Ashby's laboratory at Barnwood House Hospital.
1955 March. Ross's laboratory.

Ross was originally employed as a Research Biochemist, investigating the enzymes involved in electro-convulsive therapy (E.C.T.)., Barnwood House was the first hospital in Britain to introduce E.C.T. in 1939 and Leucotomy in 1941. Ross usually spent every Thursday with Professor Golla and Dr Grey Walter either at The Burden Institute in Bristol 30 miles away or at Barnwood House.

As a result of the National Health Service offering free treatment and improvements in the treatment of mental illnesses, Barnwood House faced falling numbers of patients and it became increasingly unlikely that it would survive. Barnwood House eventually closed in 1968.

1955 March. Ross Ashby's laboratory at Barnwood House Hospital.
1955 March. Ross's Laboratory.

1949-'58 The Ratio Club Contents

Ross was a founding member of the Cambridge-based interdisciplinary group of young researchers, known as The Ratio Club. On journal page 2624 he described the inaugural meeting that took place on 14 September 1949 at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases.

Alan Turing, who had written a letter to Ross in 1946 about Ross's intention to build the Homeostat, was also a member of the club. At the 7 December 1950 meeting, Turing gave a talk titled "Educating a Digital Computer" in which he presented what became know as the Turing Test.

For more information, see The Ratio Club: A Hub of British Cybernetics by Phil Husbands and Owen Holland.

Ratio Club members, Cambridge, 1951.
Ratio Club, 1951.

1949-'50 Design for a Brain Contents

Back in April 1943 on Journal page 1234 Ross had outlined his intention to write a book about his research. Some people thought that Ross found writing easy but he said quite the contrary. In April 1947 (Journal page 2174) he mentioned the need to improve his style of writing.

In March 1949, Ross started a correspondence course with The Regent Institute in Palace Gate, West London and almost two years later gained a Diploma in Effective English and Personal Efficiency. On 12 June 1949 he wrote in his journal "Have been doing nothing but write my book since I returned from holiday (April 11)."

The Superintendent at Barnwood House, Dr Flemming, was very supportive of Ross when he started writing Design For a Brain. Ross completed it in December 1950, it was published in 1952, and gradually his hobby (his journal) became his work.

Ross kept newspaper cuttings in his Journal for the first advertisment in Nature and recorded the following reviews: Observer, Citizen, British Medical Journal, Journal of Consulting Psychology & McCulloch, Hibbert Journal, Galaxy and Scientific American, and Occupational Psychology.

Design for a Brain.
Design for a Brain

Design for a Brain; The Origin of Adaptive Behaviour (1960) is available in several different formats at archive.org.

1952 The 9th Macy Conference Contents

On 14th January 1952, Warren McCulloch wrote two leters to Ross, inviting him to attend the ninth Macy conference in March.

According to Ezequiel A. Di Paolo and Inman Harvey: "When W. Ross Ashby presented his Homeostat at the ninth Macy conference on cybernetics in 1952 the reception was sceptical, as if they were being confronted with a sleight of hand because learning and adaptation seemed implausibly complex to be supported only by random undirected mechanisms."

After returning from the conference, Ross recorded the events of "a somewhat hectic twelve days", which included meeting McCulloch in Chicago, John R. Bowman at the Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh, Norbert Wiener and Walter Pitts at MIT, the Macy conference in New York, Claude Shannon at Bell Labs, Mina Rees and Seymour Kety in Washington.

1952-'53 The Law of Requisite Variety Contents

In October 1952, on page 4159 Ross stated the need for variety. By February 1953, he had a proof by inverse of the Law of Requisite Variety, and in November 1953, he asserted "Only variation can force variation down...". Variety and Requisite Variety were to become important themes in his second book.

1952-'56 An Introduction to Cybernetics Contents

On Christmas Eve 1952, Ross recorded on page 4298: "Following a suggestion from Dad I have decided to write an Introducton to Cybernetics." With his second book, he wanted to make Cybernetics more accessible for non-cyberneticians, such as physiologists, psychologists, and sociologists.

Although he emphasized the general applicability of cybernetic principles, he stated in the preface that "Though the book covers many topics, these are but means; the end has been throughout to make clear what principles must be followed when one attempts to restore normal function to a sick organism that is, as a human patient, of fearful complexity. It is my faith that the new understanding may lead to new and effective treatments, for the need is great.".

Ross kept newspaper cuttings in his Journal for the first advertisment and the following reviews: Nature by D.M. MacKay, Electronic Engineering, Electronic & Radio Engineer, and Automation Progress by Grey Walter.

In 1999, it was made available as a PDF by Principia Cybernetica Project.

An Introduction to Cybernetics.

An Introduction to Cybernetics
An Introduction to Cybernetics.

Ross Ashby, Warren McCulloch, Grey Walter, and Norbert Wiener at a meeting in Paris. (Photo from Thinking By Machine by P. de Latil, 1956.)

1955-'56 Center of Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, Palo Alto, California Contents

1955 August. Rosebud and Ross Ashby on the way from New York to california.
1955 August. On the way from New York to California.

In 1954 Ross was invited to join 49 other fellows for a year at the Center of Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, Palo Alto, California, the first of such gatherings, but he had to decline the offer due to other commitments.

In 1955 Ross was invited again, and the whole family plus their two-seater Triumph TR2 car and the Homeostat left for Palo Alto. On the way, they stayed five days with Rook and Warren McCulloch in Old Lyme, Connecticut, where Walter Pitts was also a guest.

1955. 4020 Amaranta Way, Palo Alto, California.
1955. 4020 Amaranta Way, Palo Alto, California.
1956. Rosebud and Jill Ashby in the TR2.
1955. Ross in his office at Stanford.

On their return journey home a year later, Ross and Rosebud met their daughters again for several days at the McCullochs'. The girls had been traveling six weeks by Greyhound from Palo Alto via the Canadian Rockies, Yellowstone Park, and Great Aunt Clara in Toledo. Ross had a big surprise, he had grown a beard and the girls all got the giggles.

1956. Rosebud and Jill Ashby in the Triumph TR2.
1956. Rosebud and Jill in the Triumph TR2.

1959-'60 The Burden Neurological Institute, Bristol Contents

When Ross became the Director of The Burden Neurological Institute, it seemed like a good idea, but he was no administrator and had some unorthodox methods that were very unpopular. Ross's Journal shows that he continued his research while there. Indeed, in June 1959, he wrote on page 6117 that he had finally solved the problem that he had originally set out to solve 31 years earlier:

Today I can say I have solved the problem I set out to solve on 7 May 1928.
I asked, roughly, whence came the patterning properties of the nervous system.
The answer is now clear...

By the following page (6118) he concluded:

... As the selection gets more intense, and the closed set smaller, so does the relation show more intensely. But also, so does it become more degenerate, until finally, at a state of equilibrium, the degeneracy is complete. Then all - disturbances and responses - meet at zero. The adaptation is perfect, intelligence infallible, all in Nirvana.
The final statement.

It was also while at The Burden Institute that he concluded in February 1960, on page 6158:

... no regulator can be more effective than the state-determined system.

1959-'60 Westons, Old Down Hill, Tockington, South Gloucestershire Contents

1959 July 12. Move to Westons.

1960 Oct. Rosebud and Ross Ashby on the rockery. Photo by local newpaper for an article about the conversion of Westons from a school.
1960 Oct. Rosebud and
Ross on the rockery.

In 1959 Ross and Rosebud bought a quaint 100 year old disused village school 10 miles north of Bristol and called it “Westons”, after the village teacher, Miss Mary Weston, who had the school built with public subscription in 1857.

The conversion to what they hoped would be their dream retirement home, took a year, so Ross and Rosebud lived in an 18-foot caravan in the school grounds. While Ross was at work, Rosebud was busy clearing the playground and discovered rock under a few inches of soil. This fired her imagination and she created a huge natural rockery, built walls with spare stone, excavated an enormous sunken garden and, with Ross’ help, built a long six foot high curved retaining wall with seats in it. Even in winter it was a superb suntrap. The rock floor of the sunken garden was not level so Ross made a low three-legged triangular table which was very useful when refreshments and meals were enjoyed down there.

The day the furniture was being moved out of storage into Westons, Ross phoned Rosebud from Urbana, Illinois, full of excitement. Heinz von Foerster, with Stafford Beer present, had offered him a chair at the University in the Department of Electrical Engineering. He realized it was quite the wrong time to suggest leaving Westons and nobody knows what Rosebud's initial reaction was.

1960 The sunken garden with seats in the retaining wall.

The huge rockery newly hewn by Rosebud Ashby. Photo taken from the bedroom window.
The huge rockery newly
hewn by Rosebud.

Bell Room staircase/beams.

1961-'70 Biological Computing Laboratory, University of Illinois Contents

December 1960.
Ross wearing his
"Thinking Cap".

Just before Christmas 1960, Ross and Rosebud boarded the S.S Maasdam in Southampton for New York with their Jaguar car and the Homeostat for what was originally going to be just one year. During the voyage, Ross entered the fancy hat competition with a "Thinking Cap" made out of wire coat hangers with a rotating vane and pieces of paper with various mathematical symbols on them. Ross won the first prize. They managed to come home annually for a holiday usually to coincide with a conference somewhere in Europe or England. Each year, they decided to stay for another year in the U.S., until Ross retired in 1970.

In 1961 Ross gave the Frier Distinguished Lecture.

Ross was in his element at BCL. It provided him with so much interaction and collaboration, both with faculty and students that Ross said his nine years at the BCL were very exhausting but his most productive and enjoyable.

1961 family portrait. Mark, Denis, Steven, Rosebud, Ross Ashby, Ruth, Patrick,Jill, Sally, Ivan and John.
1961 family portrait.
Mark, Denis, Steven, Rosebud, Ross, Ruth, Patrick, Jill, Sally, Ivan, and John.
~1962 portrait of Ross Ashby.
~1962 portrait.
1962 August. Independence Pass, Rosebud and the Jaguar XK120.
1962 August. Independence Pass, Rosebud, Jaguar XK 120.
~1963. Ross Ashby in his office.
~1963. Ross in his office.
Private correspondence.
1968 Private correspondence.
1964 Nov. Ross Ashby on a visit to Moscow.
Nov 1964, in Moscow.

In 1964, Ross and Rosebud were invited to Russia to be able to spend all the Roubles from the Russian edition of “Design for a Brain” that had accumulated, but could not be converted to a hard currency, and had to be spent in Russia. Although he knew he would be given the very best hospitality, he decided not to take Rosebud because of the political situation. While there he wanted to buy Rosebud a fur coat so he tried on some of her coats before he left, shutting his eyes to get the feel of them, he being the smaller. The Russian store staff could not understand his actions. He bought back a beautiful black astrakhan coat but, sadly, Rosebud never wore it because it was made for Russian winters. Besides Russian trinkets for the family, he bought a very large lens for himself and later constructed a large frame from Dexion, wood and Meccano to hold the lens for use as a telescope.

Rosebud and Ross relaxing in the back garden at 401 South Busey.
401, South Busey, Urbana.
1969. Ross Ashby in an arran jumper, knitted by Rosebud.
1969. Ross in an Arran jumper, knitted by Rosebud.

In August 1968, both London Evening papers told of “The Brain Drain in Reverse” as Professor Frank George, who for the past year had been at Georgia Institute of Technology, and Professor Ross Ashby were intending to start a Cybernetic Institute at Brunel University, Uxbridge in London to rival the research center in Moscow. But they could not find funding for the project. By then Ross was 65, found lecturing very exhausting and even mentioned in correspondence thinking of coming home five years earlier. Also, it would have meant not returning to Westons, into which they had both invested so much hard work. Compared to the peace and tranquility of Westons and the beauty of the surrounding countryside, living under the flight path of Heathrow would have been a very unwelcome ordeal.

1970 july 12th. Ross Ashby aged 67 playing the clarinet in Kickapoo Park, Illinois
1970 July 12th. Ross aged 67 playing the clarinet in Kickapoo Park, Illinois.

Hobbies and Interests Contents

In his 30’s, 40’s and 50’s his hobbies included listening to his small record collection. His favourite was jazz by Jango Rheinhart and Stephan Grapelli, whom he discovered in the 1930s. He marvelled at Jango’s virtuosity especially as two fingers on his left hand had been severely disabled when he was burnt in a fire when young. Ross’s deeper enjoyment of classical music came later in life, and it could sometimes move him to elation or tears.

Ross made this set of drawers and many of the items inside for his horological work.

During the Second World War, when he could not find anyone to attend his watch, he taught himself watch and clock cleaning and repairing. Later he bought a watchmaker’s lathe and made the tools he needed and a cabinet to hold them in with all the drawers carefully labelled. He found a good supply of old clocks and watches in the maintenance department at Barnwood House to challenge and improve his skills.

When in India and without a camera, he made simple water-colour paintings showing, for example, the style of his chair, and the huge local red boulders that he said looked as though a giant had rolled them there. In 1949 with his typical thoroughness, he made a small art notebook and studied books on watercolour painting. He recorded and demonstrated different techniques in it and their effects on different papers. He listed colours recommended and those to avoid and why. He later painted a number of pictures but sadly none survive. At that time he was also writing Design for a Brain.

Ross enjoyed the works of Shakespeare and Dickens and he read them many times. He enjoyed browsing second-hand book shops which years ago could be found in most towns. He found and bought several books by Ogden Nash which he thoroughly enjoyed and read many times even when he was terminally ill.

1935 Ross's winning photo of Sally and Jill.

Ross’s interest in photography started in his mid 20’s and continued for the rest of his life and he always meticulously recorded details of each photo taken. In 1935 he won a photographic competition with a photograph of Jill holding a mug to baby sister Sally’s open mouth with a drip of water hanging on the bottom of the mug.

Ross had a lifelong interest in astronomy.

Ross was frequently making things and it is a pity he never photographed his tiny workshop at Westons. It was fitted out meticulously with a specific place for each of his large selection of tools. Most were labelled and many included notes documenting, for example, when they were last oiled or how to use them. The fittings were made from old drawers, boxes, wire frames, wire hooks etc. and fascinated many who saw them.

For more photographs of things that Ross made, see Ross's Tools and Creations.

Cars Contents

1951. Ross Ashby's first car, a Morris 12 bought about 1938.
Ruth by the Morris 12.

1956. Rosebud and Jill Ashby in the TR2.
Rosebud and Jill in the Triumph TR2.

1962 August. Independence Pass, Rosebud and the Jaguar XK120.
Jaguar XK 120.

Ross took driving very seriously indeed, would very rarely hold any conversation while driving and would tell others in the car not to distract him as cars were lethal. He said one should treat other road users as being crazy and liable to do the unexpected anytime.

Ross owned three cars, each one for over 10 years. He maintained them as much as he could himself. The first was a black and maroon Morris 12 (registration VV 5267) bought about 1938 that he carefully put on bricks when he left for the Army in 1945. His second car was a surprise to the family, a new soft topped white Triumph TR2 sports car (registration MFH 49) that he took to Palo Alto, California in 1955.

His third car was a second-hand soft-topped dull grey Jaguar XK 120 (registration 140 APF.) He and Rosebud took it to Urbana in December 1960 and surprised people there by arriving in below freezing temperature with the hood down and a frozen bottle of champagne. They used it for many enjoyable trips and bought it home in 1970 but by then the soft top had begun to leak and would have been very expensive to renew so he sold it for £150. In 2004 the car still had a registered owner and so could be traced. Apparently the engine had been built into a hill-climbing vehicle and the owner still had many of the other parts in his garage.

After Ross sold the Jaguar he bought a second-hand automatic camper van (RV). Strangely there seems to be no photos of it though he and Rosebud thoroughly enjoyed having it for about a year for days out, visiting the families and 2 trips across continental Europe. Being 68 years old and of slight build, Ross found the steering very heavy. Its acceleration was very sluggish.

They toured along the Rhine retracing the route they had walked together 40 years before, but unfortunately completely broke down near Frankfurt and the Automobile Association had to bring it home on a trailer. Another time they enjoyed touring Greece. Their last trip was to Vienna in May 1972 for the Austrian Society for Cybernetic Studies conference just before he became ill. He sold the camper van after that trip.

1970-'72 Retirement Contents

1976 Oct. Westons showing the school bell.
Westons showing the school bell.

Westons from inside the gate.
Westons from inside the gate.
1971 June. Son-in-law Patrick Pettit, Rosebud, and Ross Ashby in the garden at Westons with the framework for the large lens that he bought in Russia taking shape.
1971 June. Son-in-law Patrick Pettit, Rosebud, and Ross in the garden using the large Russian lens as a telescope.

In August 1970, Ross retired, returned to Westons, was made an Honorary Professorial Fellow at the University of Wales in Cardiff and gave lectures there in the Applied Mathematics Department. In his two years of retirement, Ross continued to write his journal, but he also enjoyed having more time for his hobbies.

Ross lined his small workshop with thin polystyrene and calculated how long it would take for his small electric fire to warm it from different starting temperatures so that he could work in comfort.

While in retirement Ross was still busy recording his ideas in his journals, enjoying reading and going for walks with Rosebud — something they had both enjoyed since they first met. Ross set himself many different challenges, for example, engraving the whole of the Lord’s Prayer on the sovereign’s head of a silver three pence coin.

Besides the freedom retirement brought, he really enjoyed playing the Clarinet which he had started teaching himself in his early 60’s. Most days he would play for 3 or 4 hours. He would practice in the afternoons but played anything for the sheer pleasure in the evenings and recorded his progress in a notebook finding that one week without playing put him temporarily back three months. He was very fond of and respectful of Rosebud. They did not have television.

In March 1972, Ross made his last journal entry in volume 25, on page 7189. In June, he was told that he had an inoperable brain tumor, and on November 15 Ross passed away peacefully at Westons.

The front doorstep, long retaining wall 6 feet high with seats made by Ross Ashby and Rosebud.
The front doorstep, lawn, and the top of the retaining wall that Ross and Rosebud built.

The garden and valley.
The garden and valley.

Westons and garden viewed from the back gate.
Westons and garden viewed from the back gate.

A Cup of Happiness from Ross to Rosebud Contents

In 1963, Ross engraved the following text in a spiral on a 6 cm high Schnaps glass, listing things that Rosebud especially liked:

Engraved for Rosebud.

— A Cup of Happiness from Ross to Rosebud

Jill ~ Pottery ~ Sally ~ TR2 ~ Ruth ~ Arranging flowers ~ Preserved ginger ~ ITMA ~ Shaffers ~ Steven ~ Dinard ~ Tennis ~ Mark ~ May Hill ~ John ~ Merrow Down ~ Richard ~ Lobster ~ Bread making ~ Michael ~ Clive Brook ~ Bear Lake ~ Chas. B Cochran ~ Auctions ~ Wood fires ~ Stratford ~ Terry’s ~ Gardening ~ Cookham ~ Tiddles ~ Repertory ~ Swimming ~ Bingen ~ Green Ridges ~ Sand castles ~ Ewhurst ~ Nov. 1926 ~ Cheltenham ~ Monday Night at Eight ~ Ouray ~ Delphiniums ~ Windon House ~ North Devon ~ Eau de Cologne ~ Dressmaking ~ Rhossilli ~ Tea ~ Palo Alto ~ Hot baths ~ Take it from here ~ Earrings ~ Cornwall ~ Geraniums ~ Painswick ~ Bear Grass ~ Oeufs Mournay ~ Furs ~ Vanilla slice ~ Crème de Menthe ~ Gt. Smith Street.

Note: Tiddles was their cat. Great Smith Street is near Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, and is where they first met in November 1926.

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