The Wilson-Cowan model of interacting neurons (1973) is one of the most influential papers published in Biological Cybernetics (Kybernetik). This paper and a companion paper published in 1972 have been cited over 1000 times. Rather than focus on the microscopic properties of neurons, Wilson and Cowan analyzed the collective properties of large numbers of neurons using methods from statistical mechanics, based on the mean-field approach. New experimental techniques to measure neuronal activity at the level of large populations are now available to test these models, including optical recording of brain activity with intrinsic signals and voltage sensitive dyes, and new methods for analyzing EEG and MEG. These measurement techniques have revealed patterns of coherent activity that span centimetres of tissue in the cerebral cortex. Here the underlying ideas are reviewed in a historic context.