Bush was never directly involved with the creation or development
of the Internet. He died before the creation of the World Wide Web.
Yet many consider Bush to be the Godfather of our wired age often
making reference to his 1945 essay, "As
We May Think." In his article, Bush described a theoretical machine
he called a "memex," which was to enhance human memory by allowing
the user to store and retrieve documents linked by associations. This
associative linking was very similar to what is known today as hypertext.
Indeed, Ted Nelson who later did pioneering
work with hypertext credited Bush as his main influence (Zachary,
399). Others, such as J.C.R. Licklider
and Douglas Engelbart have also paid
homage to Bush.
innovative idea for automating human memory was obviously important
in the development digital age, but even more important was his influence
on the institution of science in America. His work to create a relationship
between the government and the scientific establishment during WWII
changed the way scientific research is carried on in the U.S. and
fostered the environment in which the Internet was later created.
was born on March 11, 1890, in Chelsea, Massachusetts. He had two
sisters. His father was a Universalist minister. As a child, Bush
was sickly and was occasionally bedridden for long stretches of time.
Still, he was self-confident and sometimes got into fights with other
boys. He once said, "all of [my] recent ancestors [before my father]
were sea captains, and they have a way of running things without any
doubt. So it may have been partly that, and partly my association
with my grandfather, who was a whaling skipper. That left me with
some inclination to run a show once I was in it." (Zachary,
Bush did well in school where he showed an aptitude for math. When
he graduated he went off to Tufts College to study engineering. Half
of his expenses were paid by a scholarship. He worked as a tutor and
aid in the math department to pay the other half. Bush studied earnestly
and earned a master's degree in the time it usually takes to earn
a bachelor's degree. His academic success fueled his desire to do
things his way not depending on others' rules. This trait would become
increasingly evident later in his life.
at Tufts Bush enjoyed his first experience as an inventor. His invention
was a land surveying device he called the profile tracer. It looked
something like a lawnmower. As it was pushed over land it automatically
calculated elevations and drew a crude map. It allowed one man to
do the work usually done by three. Bush thought it would be commercially
successful, but it never caught on. He learned from this failure.
He learned that to become a real engineer he needed to learn more
than math and physics. He needed to learn how to effectively deal
graduation from Tufts, Bush went to work for General Electric testing
electrical equipment. He was laid off after a fire broke out in his
plant. He then took a position teaching math at Tufts' sister college-Clark
University in Massachusetts. That was in 1914. The next year he decided
to return to school himself. He was offered a large fellowship of
$1,50o to pursue his doctorate under a professor named Arthur Webster.
Webster wanted Bush to devote his doctoral work to the study of acoustics.
Bush, who did not care to be told what to do, declined the fellowship.
Instead, he went to MIT where he earned his doctorate in engineering
in less than a year ad then returned to Tufts as a assistant professor.
Bush had paid little attention to the war before the U.S. entered
into it in 1917, but then he wanted to aid the effort. Other scientists
also wanted to lend their services, but the military and government
mostly declined their offers. In 1916, a group of interested scientists
formed the National Research Council (NRC). The council's main purpose
was to produce innovations in weaponry. One of its main tasks was
to improve submarine detection.
had an idea for a device that would use magnetic fields to detect
submarines. In May 1917, he traveled to Washington to meet with the
director of the NRC. The director liked Bush's idea and thought it
was worth pursuing. Bush convinced the director to let him handle
the research personally without interference. It was important to
Bush that he be in control of his project. His device proved to be
successful in testing, but Navy officials, who generally viewed Bush
as somewhat of a maverick, did not deploy the device correctly and
it proved virtually useless in combat. Bush again learned that a successful
engineer also had to be a good politician.
In 1919, Bush left Tufts and went to MIT's electrical engineering
department. By the 1930's Bush was working on analog computers. These
were large mechanical devices that looked quite different than today's
digital machines. They actually used large gears and other mechanical
parts to solve equations. In 1931, he completed the first differential
analyzer-a machine that was used to solve differential equations.
Bush's Differential Analyzer
also worked on developing machines that would automate human thinking.
Specialization in just about every field of academia was creating
a glut of information. Something was needed to help sort through the
growing store of accumulated knowledge. In the 1930' s microfilm,
which had been around for nearly a century, was growing in popularity
as a storage device, especially among librarians. Bush, a photography
enthusiast, was quite interested in this resurgent technology. He
proposed to build a machine for the FBI that could review 1,000 fingerprints
a minute. They turned him down. But he continued to pursue his latest
called his device a rapid selector. It would be housed in a desk and
could store huge amounts of information on microfilm. The user could
rapidly select documents which would then be projected on screen.
In the late 1930's, Bush oversaw the building of four rapid selectors.
They were plagued with technical problems and hindered by the state
of current technology, but he was among the very first to attempt
to build a personal information processor, and these early experiences
provided a solid base for his landmark article, "As
We May Think."
1937, Bush became the president of the Carnegie Institution. The institution
spent $1.5 million annually on research. The presidency of the institution
came with a lot of prestige. The president influenced the direction
of research in the U.S. and informally advised the government on scientific
The U.S. was not prepared for the second world war. Little was spent
on military research. The military research that was done was done
by military personnel and often duplicated between the different branches.
The military looked down on engineers as little more than salesmen.
By 1940, Bush and other American scientists felt that the country
needed a new organization to conduct military research. Scientists
and the government/military, as well as business would need to cooperate
in the event of American involvement in the war.
June 12, 1940, Bush met with President Roosevelt and detailed his
plan for mobilizing military research. He proposed a new organization
he called the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC). The committee
would bring together government, military, business, and scientific
leaders to coordinate military research. Roosevelt quickly agreed
and thus the NDRC was created. Bush was made chairman and given a
direct line to the White House. In mid-1941, The Office of Scientific
Research and Development was set up. The NDRC had been funded by presidential
emergency funds and was often short on money. The OSRD was congressionally
funded. The NDRC was subsumed under the OSRD as its chief operating
unit. Bush became director of the OSRD.
The NDRC and then the OSRD were originally set up to support and augment
Army and Navy research, but by the end of the war the OSRD was leading
military research. Many useful innovations resulted from OSRD research
and development including improvements in radar, the proximity fuse,
anti-submarine tactics, and various secret devices for the OSS (the
precursor of the CIA). Bush was also very closely involved in the
Manhattan Project which developed the first atomic bomb. Of course
most of OSRD's work was top secret during the war, but Bush as its
leader became something of a celebrity. Colliers magazine hailed him
as the "man who may win or lose the war" (Ratcliff,
work with the NDRC and OSRD definitely helped the U.S. and its allies
win the war. Bush also changed the way basic scientific research was
done in the U.S. He proved that technology was key to winning a war
and this created a new respect for scientists. He institutionalized
the relationship between government, business, and the scientific
community. Paul Ceruzzi, curator of the Smithsonian Institutions says,
" Bush is responsible for the whole architecture of government support
for science" (Ceruzzi in Zachary).
It was this government support of research that would later foster
the creation of the Internet.
late 1944, Allied victory was inevitable. Bush began to look to the
future. He believed that after the war the nation would still need
permanent support for research. In March 1945, Bush drafted an article
entitled, "Science-The Endless Frontier." He outlined the importance
of continued support for research. He called for a National Research
Foundation that "should develop and promote a national policy for
scientific research and scientific education, should support basic
research in nonprofit organizations, should develop scientific talent
in American youth by means of scholarships and fellowships, and should
by contract and otherwise support long -range research on military
matters" (Bush, 28). His dreams
for were never fully realized, but in 1950 the National Science Foundation
(NSF) was created. The NSF did not quite fulfill Bush's expectations.
It was not as powerful as his proposal called for. Nonetheless, the
marriage between science and government was secured.
We May Think"
1945, Bush also published an article in the Atlantic Monthly called,
We May Think." He had written earlier drafts of this article years
before he actually published it. His main purpose in writing the article
was to influence "thinking regarding science in the modern world"
and to "emphasize the opportunity for the application of science in
a field which is largely neglected by science" (Bush
in Nyce & Kahn, 81). That field was the automation or augmentation
of human thought.
In the article he describes a theoretical machine called a "memex."
It was an obvious extension of Bush's earlier work with the rapid
selector. The memex was also to be a storage and retrieval device
using microfilm. It would consist of a desk with viewing screens,
a keyboard, selection buttons and levers, and microfilm storage. Information
stored on the microfilm could be retrieved rapidly and projected on
a screen. The machine was to extend the powers of human memory and
association. Just as the human mind forms memories through associations,
the user of the memex would be able to make links between documents.
Bush called these associative trails and offered this example in his
of the memex let us say, is interested in the origin and properties
of the bow and arrow. Specifically he is studying why the short
Turkish bow was apparently superior to the English long bow in the
skirmishes of the Crusades. He has dozens of possibly pertinent
books and articles in his memex. First he runs through an encyclopedia,
finds an interesting but sketchy article, leaves it projected. Next,
in a history, he finds another pertinent item, and ties the two
together. Thus he goes, building a trail of many items. Occasionally
he inserts a comment of his own, either linking it into the main
trail or joining it by a side trail to a particular item. When it
becomes evident that the elastic properties of available materials
had a great deal to do with the bow, he branches off on a side trail
which takes him through textbooks on elasticity and physical constants.
He inserts a page of longhand analysis of his own. Thus he builds
a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available
to him." (Bush, 15).
system is remarkably similar to modern hypertext. In fact, Ted
Nelson, who coined the term "hypertext" in the 1960's, acknowledges
his debt to Bush. "Bush was right," says Nelson (Nelson
in Nyce and Kahn, 245).
Bush died on June 30, 1974, years before the Internet became widely
popular or the World Wide Web even existed. With the growing popularity
of the Internet many now look back through its history and see Bush
as a visionary. Even when Bush was alive he seemed to always be looking
toward the future, or perhaps he saw the present a little differently
than most othershe was fond of saying, "It is earlier than we
think" (Zachary, 408).
Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century
Memex to Hypertext: Vannevar Bush and the Mind's Machine
Vannevar Bush | J.C.R.
Licklider | Larry Roberts | Paul
Bob Metcalfe |
Doug Engelbart | Vint Cerf | Ted
Nelson | Tim Berners-Lee |
Marc Andreesen | Epilogue |