The Curious Origin of the Word ‘Cyberspace’


By Dr Oliver Tearle

Where does the word cyberspace come from? The origins of this word are a little more complex than is usually acknowledged, so it’s worth delving into the story of how cyberspace came to be a ‘thing’. And where did that cyber- prefix even originate in the first place?

The answer will take us into the world of science fiction (as you might expect), avant-garde art (perhaps more surprising), and nautical engineering (perhaps more surprising still).

The story actually begins in the nineteenth century, at least if we’re truly to uncover the origins of cyberspace and the cyber- prefix. In 1868, a French engineer named Léon Farcot invented an automatic control for the rudder of a steamship. Farcot drew on the idea of feedback, a system which determines the gulf between the desired outcome and the actual state of affairs and seeks to narrow the gulf until it is zero. For a steamship, this meant that the steam pressure would shut off when the ship reached the desired location.

But in the twentieth century, the advent of more advanced electronic devices enabled this automatic process to become more refined and complex (and accurate). By 1948, an American mathematician named Norbert Wiener had developed a sophisticated mathematical system for determining the handling of feedback.

This ushered in a new branch of science named cybernetics, named by Wiener himself after the ancient Greek κυβερνήτης meaning ‘steersman’. Interestingly, the same root, the Greek κυβερνᾶν meaning ‘to steer’, is also the source of our words govern and government, because to govern is to steer society in a particular direction.

Wiener’s coinage made sense because his automated system controls the ship’s rudder in much the same way as a steersman or helmsman would have done in earlier times. Like the automated system, a helmsman checks the position of the ship and adjusts the rudder accordingly until the vessel is in the right place.

But Wiener’s word cybernetics wasn’t just meant to refer to literal ships and the electronic systems developed to steer them. As he wrote, cybernetics referred to ‘the entire field of control and communication theory, whether in the machine or in the animal’.

Curiously, although we give Wiener the credit for coining the word, what he was really doing was introducing it into English and applying it to a new field of communication science. As Julia Cresswell points out in The Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins, the French had used the term cybernétique 110 years earlier to refer to the art of governing.

But it was Wiener’s co-opting of this term which would influence the coining of later cyber- terms, including cyberpunk (1983), cybersex (1991), and, of course, cyberspace.

But when was cyberspace coined? And by whom?

The person who usually gets the credit is the author who has probably done more than any other to imagine our own age, with its reliance on the internet, smartphones, and the rest of it. His name is William Gibson (born 1948), an American author of what we might call ‘science fiction’ or, indeed, ‘cyberpunk’. Gibson is undoubtedly the most famous author of cyberpunk in the world.

Gibson began his career writing short stories in the early 1980s, although it was his debut novel Neuromancer, published in 1984, which really put him on the literary map. His books clearly tie in with films like The Matrix, where whole realities seem to be simulated through technology. Although Gibson wasn’t involved with that film, we can detect the same ideas in both.

And it is Gibson who is normally named as the author who coined the word cyberspace. Indeed, even the Oxford English Dictionary claims that the word was ‘Apparently coined by William Gibson’, and directs us to a citation from Gibson’s 1982 short story ‘Burning Chrome’.

Gibson undoubtedly popularised the term, but it had, in fact, already been coined. For the term cyberspace first appeared in the visual arts in the late 1960s, when a Danish artist named Susanne Ussing (1940-1998) and her partner, the architect Carsten Hoff (b. 1934), exhibited together under the name Atelier Cyberspace. Two installations about ‘sensory spaces’ which were influenced by human input and human movement were created using this name.

Of course, the internet didn’t exist in the 1960s when Atelier Cyberspace was created. The world wide web was still over two decades away, and even the early US prototype known as ‘the internet’ would only get off the ground in the early 1970s. Instead, the kind of ‘Cyberspace’ which Ussing and Hoff imagined was a physical space rather than some virtual plane: the way we usually interpret cyberspace now.

So, Gibson may not have come up with the term originally – just as Norbert Wiener wasn’t exactly the first to come up with ‘cybernetic’ – but he was the first to apply it to the virtual or ‘online’ world which we’re referring to whenever we use the word cyberspace now. And if you haven’t read William Gibson’s work, it’s worth your time. And why not start with ‘Burning Chrome’ and the collection of stories to which that story gives its name?