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Powers, William T. (William Treval), 1926-2013



  • Existence: 1926 - 2013

William T. Powers was born on August 29, 1926 in Salem, Oregon. He was one of two children of Treval Clifford Powers and Trista Rosalie Wenger. Powers attended Hinsdale Township High School in Hinsdale, Illinois. He then continued his education from 1944-1946 at the rigorous Electronics Training Program, created by the U. S. Navy to meet demands for technicians capable of operating and maintaining the cutting edge military technology present on ships, aircraft, submarines, and shore stations. After his honorable discharge from the navy in 1946, he continued to develop his extensive knowledge of electronics. Powers attended the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1947 – 1948, and then transferred to Northwestern University in 1948, where he would accomplish the rest of his higher education.

In 1950, Powers received a B. S. in physics from Northwestern University, and in 1953 he began work at the Argonne Cancer Research Hospital at the University of Chicago, where he was responsible for designing methods to calibrate radioactive devices. It was working with these devices that Powers began to develop the idea of a hierarchical control model of behavior, which was later termed Perceptual Control Theory (PCT).

In 1954, Powers transferred to the Veterans Administration Research Hospital to work under R. K. Clark, with whom he would eventually publish one of his earliest papers, A General Feedback Theory of Human Behavior. During his 16 years at the hospital, Powers designed numerous medical systems and computer programs, and had ample time to develop his theory. Powers married Mary Andrews on April 7th, 1956. They had three children – Denison, born February 6th, 1957, Alison, born April 20th, 1959, and Barbara, born March 28th, 1961. After publishing several papers, conducting experiments, and creating a cybernetic theory of behavior with Clark and McFarland, Powers decided he wanted to pursue a master’s degree in psychology. He studied psychology at Northwestern University for one year, but did not return for a second due to the financial difficulties of supporting his family during his studies and because his advisors discouraged him from basing his thesis on PCT.

After ending his studies, Powers began designing equipment for the astronomy department at Northwestern as a Systems Engineer under Dr. J. A. Hynek. From 1960 to 1972, at both the Dearborn Observatory and later at the Lindheimer Astronomical Research Center on campus, he designed and built low-light-level television systems for telescopes and designed the computer control system for the Corralitos Observatory, a remote research station of Northwestern University in New Mexico, which conducted the first automated (computerized) search for supernovas with successful results. Among projects he completed for NASA was an all-sky survey photometer for use on the moon in connection with Apollo 18, which was canceled, making Apollo 17 the last of the Apollo missions. Powers also investigated UFOs for Project Blue Book, which Hynek directed. Alongside his achievements in astronomy, Powers continued work on PCT. In 1973 he published Behavior: The Control of Perception, which is generally considered the foundational text of PCT. After the release of his book, Powers began to devote more time to his research. He consulted for electronics companies to sustain himself and his family, but his passion was for his theoretical work. In the following years Powers attended and gave presentations on PCT at a number of psychological conferences, wrote articles for journals, and discussed PCT with people who found it interesting. PCT was adopted widely enough that Powers felt the need to foster communication among its supporters. Beginning with informal meetings in 1983 and 1984, the Control Systems Group (CSG) was born in 1985. Over the years the membership of the group has included psychologists, but also many others interested in incorporating PCT in a variety of fields of study and practice. At annual meetings, they discussed the theory and reviewed the latest control systems research. They also created CSGnet, an online email chat group providing a forum for questions and discussions about PCT. Powers participated actively in CSGnet and continued to post messages in this forum until his death, May 24, 2013.

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

William T. Powers Papers

Identifier: 11/3/5/7
Overview William T. Powers received a B.S. in physics from Northwestern University in 1953. While working at the Argonne Cancer Research Hospital at the University of Chicago, he developed the ideas that led to the hierarchical control model of behavior (later termed Perceptual Control Theory). Powers designed equipment (most notably for use in astronomy) while he continued to develop his theory. The William T. Powers collection fills 61 boxes and includes Powers' correspondence with his fellow...