Although control systems of various types date back to antiquity, a more formal analysis of the field began with a dynamics analysis of the centrifugal governor, conducted by the physicist James Clerk Maxwell in 1868 entitled On Governors. This described and analyzed the phenomenon of "hunting", in which lags in the system can lead to overcompensation and unstable behavior. This generated a flurry of interest in the topic, during which Maxwell's classmate Edward John Routh generalized Maxwell's results for the general class of linear systems. Independently, Adolf Hurwitz analyzed system stability using differential equations in 1877, resulting in what is now known as the Routh–Hurwitz theorem.
A notable application of dynamic control was in the area of manned flight. The Wright brothers made their first successful test flights on December 17, 1903 and were distinguished by their ability to control their flights for substantial periods (more so than the ability to produce lift from an airfoil, which was known). Continuous, reliable control of the airplane was necessary for flights lasting longer than a few seconds.
By World War II, control theory was an important part of fire-control systems, guidance systems and electronics.
Sometimes mechanical methods are used to improve the stability of systems. For example, ship stabilizers are fins mounted beneath the waterline and emerging laterally. In contemporary vessels, they may be gyroscopically controlled active fins, which have the capacity to change their angle of attack to counteract roll caused by wind or waves acting on the ship.
The Sidewinder missile uses small control surfaces placed at the rear of the missile with spinning disks on their outer surface; these are known as rollerons. Airflow over the disk spins them to a high speed. If the missile starts to roll, the gyroscopic force of the disk drives the control surface into the airflow, cancelling the motion. Thus the Sidewinder team replaced a potentially complex control system with a simple mechanical solution.
The Space Race also depended on accurate spacecraft control. However, control theory also saw an increasing use in fields such as economics.
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