W. Grey Walter

A Short Biography

W. Grey Walter was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1910. His parents were originally German/British, from the father side, and American/British, from the mother side. He was brought to England in 1915, and educated at Westminster School and afterwards in King's College, Cambridge, in 1931. He failed to obtain a research fellowship in Cambridge and so turned to doing basic and applied neurophysiological research in hospitals, in London, from 1935 to 1939 and then at the Burden Neurological Institute in Bristol, from 1939 to 1970. He also carried out research  work in the United States, in the Soviet Union and in various other places in Europe.

A respected neurophysiologist, Walter worked extensively with EEG. He discovered theta and delta waves in the electroencephalogram (the brain waves associated with light and deep sleep, respectively), and developed the first EEG brain topography machine, based on an array of spiral-scan CRTs connected to high-gain amplifiers.

In the late 1940's Dr Grey Walter carried out pioneering research on mobile autonomous robots at the Burden Neurological Institute as part of his quest to model brain function.  He wanted to study the basis of simple reflex actions and to test his theory on complex behavior arising from neural interconnections. His highly successful and inspiring experiments with robot "tortoises" "Elsie" and "Elmer" were influential in the birth of the science of cybernetics, and widely read, as documented in "Scientific American" in 1950 and 1951, and in  his book "The Living Brain" (1953). Recently, one of the original tortoises was found by Dr. Owen Holland, of the University of West of England, and was restored to order in 1995. A specimen of a second generation turtle is in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution.

He married twice, and had two sons from the first and one from the second. According to his eldest son, Nicolas Walter, "he was politically on the left, a communist fellow-traveller before the Second World War and an anarchist sympathiser after it."

In 1970 Dr. Grey Walter  was severely injured in an automobile accident, dying seven years later without fully recovering from it.


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 Renato M.E. Sabbatini, PhD 

Copyrigt 1999 Renato M.E. Sabbatini
All Rights Reserved
First Published: July 25th 1999
URL: http://www.epub.org.br/cm/n09/historia/greywalter_i.htm