Vannevar Bush: Wikis


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Vannevar Bush

Vannevar Bush, ca. 1940-44
Born March 11, 1890(1890-03-11)
Everett, Massachusetts
Died June 28, 1974 (aged 84)
Belmont, Massachusetts
Institutions MIT
Alma mater B.A. Tufts College 1913
Ph.D. MIT 1917
Doctoral students Claude E. Shannon

Vannevar Bush (March 11, 1890 – June 28, 1974; pronounced /væˈniːvɑr/ van-NEE-var) was an American engineer and science administrator known for his work on analog computing, his political role in the development of the atomic bomb as a primary organizer of the Manhattan Project, and the idea of the memex, an adjustable microfilm-viewer which is somewhat analogous to the structure of the World Wide Web. As Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, Bush has coordinated the activities of some six thousand leading American scientists in the application of science to warfare.[1]

Bush was a well-known policymaker and public intellectual during World War II and the ensuing Cold War [2], and was in effect the first presidential science advisor. Bush was a proponent of democratic technocracy and of the centrality of technological innovation and entrepreneurship for both economic and geopolitical security.

Seeing later developments in the Cold War arms race, Bush became troubled. "His vision of how technology could lead toward understanding and away from destruction was a primary inspiration for the postwar research that lead to the development of New Media." [3]


Life and work

Vannevar Bush was born in Everett, Massachusetts, to Richard Perry Bush and Emma Linwood Paine. He was educated at Tufts College (now Tufts University), graduating in 1913. From mid-1913 to October 1914, Bush worked at General Electric (where he was a supervising "test man"); during the 1914-1915 academic year, Bush taught mathematics at Jackson College (the partner school of Tufts). After a summer working as an electrical inspector and a brief stint at Clark University as a doctoral student of Arthur Gordon Webster, Bush entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) electrical engineering program. Bush was vice-president and dean of engineering at MIT from 1932 to 1938. In June 1940 he convinced Franklin Delano Roosevelt to give him funding and political support to create a new kind of collaborative relationship between military, industry, and academic researchers-without congressional, or nearly any other, oversight.[4] This post included many of the powers and functions subsumed by the Provost when MIT introduced this post during 1949 including some appointments of lecturers to specific posts. While at MIT, Bush urged Col. Edward C. Harwood to found the American Institute for Economic Research as an independent, scientific research institute.

Spurred by the need for enough financial security to marry, Bush finished his thesis in less than a year. During August 1916 he married Phoebe Davis, whom he had known since Tufts, in Chelsea, Massachusetts. He received a doctorate in engineering from MIT and Harvard University, jointly, in 1917—after a dispute with his adviser Arthur Edwin Kennelly, who tried to demand more work from Bush.[5]

During World War I he worked with the National Research Council with about six thousand leading American scientists in the application of science to warfare. Such as developing submarines, trip hammers, and better microscopes. He joined the Department of Electrical Engineering at MIT in 1919 and was a professor there from 1923–32.

During 1922, Bush and his college roommate, Laurence K. Marshall, set up the American Appliance Company to market a device called the S-tube. This was a gaseous rectifier invented by C. G. Smith that greatly improved the efficiency of radios. Bush made much money from the venture. The company, renamed Raytheon, became a large electronics company and defense contractor.

Starting in 1927, Bush constructed a Differential Analyser, an analog computer that could solve differential equations with as many as 18 independent variables. An offshoot of the work at MIT was the beginning of digital circuit design theory by one of Bush's graduate students, Claude Shannon.

World War II period

A 1940 meeting at Berkeley with (from left to right) Ernest O. Lawrence, Arthur H. Compton, Bush, James B. Conant, Karl T. Compton, and Alfred L. Loomis

During 1939 Bush accepted a prestigious appointment as president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, which awarded large sums annually for research. As president, Bush was able to influence research in the U.S. towards military objectives and could informally advise the government on scientific matters. During 1939 he became fully involved with politics with his appointment as chairman of National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which he directed through 1941. Bush remained a member of NACA through 1948.

During World War I, Bush had known the lack of cooperation between civilian scientists and the military. Concerned about the lack of coordination in scientific research in the U.S. and the need for mobilization for defense, Bush in 1939 proposed a general directive agency in the Federal Government, which he often discussed with his colleagues at NACA, James B. Conant (President of Harvard University), Karl T. Compton (President of M.I.T.) (both pictured with Bush in photo right), and Frank B. Jewitt, President of the National Academy of Sciences.

Bush continued to urge for the agency's creation. Early in 1940, at Bush's suggestion, the secretary of NACA began preparing a draft of the proposed National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) to be presented to Congress. But when the Germans invaded France, Bush decided speed was important and signalled President Roosevelt directly. He managed to get a meeting with the President on 12 June 1940 and took a single sheet of paper describing the proposed agency. Roosevelt approved it in ten minutes.

NDRC was functioning, with Bush as chairman and others as members, even before the agency was made official by order of the Council of National Defense on June 27, 1940. Bush quickly appointed four leading scientists to NRDC: NACA colleagues Conant, Compton, and Jewitt, and also Richard C. Tolman, dean of the graduate school at Caltech. Each was assigned an area of responsibility. Compton was in charge of radar, Conant of chemistry and explosives, Jewitt of armor and ordnance, and Tolman of patents and inventions. Government officials then complained that Bush was attempting to by-pass them and to acquire more authority for himself. Bush later agreed: "That, in fact, is exactly what it was." This co-ordination of scientific effort was instrumental for the Allies winning the Second World War. Alfred Loomis (photo above) said that "Of the men whose death in the summer of 1940 would have been the greatest calamity for America, the President is first, and Dr. Bush would be second or third."

During 1941 the NDRC was subsumed into the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) with Bush as director, which controlled the Manhattan Project until 1943 (when administration was assumed by the Army) and which also coordinated scientific research during World War II. In all, OSRD directed 30,000 men and oversaw development of some 200 weapons and instrumentalities of war, including sonar, radar, the proximity fuze, amphibious vehicles, and the Norden bomb sight, all considered critical in winning the war. At one time, two-thirds of all the nation’s physicists were working under Bush’s direction. In addition, OSRD contributed to many advances of the physical sciences and medicine, including the mass production of penicillin and sulfa drugs.

Of the war, Bush said in "As We May Think", "This has not been a scientist's war; it has been a war in which all have had a part. The scientists, burying their old professional competition in the demand of a common cause, have shared greatly and learned much." [6]

Another good example of the close working relationship between Bush and President Roosevelt was in a brief memo, dated March 20, 1942, providing approval for development of the atom bomb and what became the Manhattan Project. Roosevelt wrote Bush, "I have read your extremely interesting report and I agree that the time has come for a review of the work of the Office on New Weapons.... I am returning the report for you to lock up, as I think it is probably better that I should not have it in my own files."[7]

Bush's method of management at OSRD was to direct overall policy while delegating supervision of divisions to qualified colleagues and letting them do their jobs without interference. He attempted to interpret the mandate of OSRD as narrowly as possible to avoid overtaxing his office and to prevent duplicating the efforts of other agencies. Other problems were obtaining adequate funds from the President and Congress and determining apportionment of research among government, academic, and industrial facilities. However, his most difficult problems, and also greatest successes, were keeping the confidence of the military, which distrusted the ability of civilians to observe security regulations, and opposing conscription of young scientists into the armed forces. The New York Times in its obituary described him as “a master craftsman at steering around obstacles, whether they were technical or political or bull-headed generals and admirals.” Dr. Conant commented, “To see him in action with the generals was an exhibit.”

Post-war years

OSRD continued to function actively until some time after the end of hostilities, but by 1946 and 1947 it had been reduced to a minimal staff charged with finishing work remaining from the war period.

Bush and many others had hoped that with the dissolution of OSRD, an equivalent peacetime government research and development agency would replace it. Bush felt that basic research was important national survival for both military and commercial reasons, requiring continued government support for science and technology. Technical superiority could be a deterrent to future enemy aggression. During July 1945, in his report to the President Science, The Endless Frontier, Bush wrote that basic research was: "the pacemaker of technological progress” and "New products and new processes do not appear full-grown. They are founded on new principles and new conceptions, which in turn are painstakingly developed by research in the purest realms of science!" He recommended the creation of what would eventually become in 1950 the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Simultaneously during July 1945, the Kilgore bill was introduced in Congress proposing a single science administrator appointed and removable by the President, with emphasis on applied research, and a patent clause favoring a government monopoly. In contrast, the competing Magnuson bill was similar to Bush's proposal to vest control in a panel of top scientists and civilian administrators with the executive director appointed by them, to emphasize basic research, and to protect private patent rights. A compromise Kilgore-Magnuson bill of February 1946 passed the Senate but expired in the House because Bush favored a competing bill that was a virtual duplicate of the original Magnuson bill.

During February 1947, a Senate bill was introduced to create the National Science Foundation to replace OSRD, favoring most of the features advocated by Bush, including the controversial administration by an autonomous scientific board. It passed the Senate on May 20 and the House on July 16, but was vetoed by Truman on August 6 on the grounds that the administrative officers were not properly responsible to either the President or Congress.

In the meantime Bush was still director of what was left of OSRD and fulfilling his duties as president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. In addition, Bush postwar had helped create the Joint Research and Development Board (JRDB) of the Army and Navy, of which he was chairman. With passage of the National Security Act, signed into law during late July 1947, the JRDB became the Research and Development Board (RDB). It was to promote research through the military until a bill creating the National Science Foundation finally became law.

It was assumed President Truman would naturally appoint Bush chairman of the new agency, and behind the scenes Bush was lobbying for the position. But Truman was displeased with the form of the just-vetoed NSF bill favored by Bush, considering it an attempt by Bush to acquire power. His misgivings about Bush were revealed publicly on September 3, 1947: He wanted more time to think about it and reportedly told his defense chiefs that if he did appoint Bush, he planned to keep a close eye on him. However, Truman finally relented. On September 24 Bush met with Truman and Secretary of Defense James Forrestal, where Truman offered the position to Bush.

Initially the RDB had a budget of 465 million dollars to be spent on "research and development for military purposes." Late during 1947, a directive issued by Forrestal further defined the duties of the board and assigned it the responsibility and authority to "resolve differences among the several departments and agencies of the military establishment."

However, the authority Bush had as chairman of the RDB was much different from the power and influence he enjoyed as director of OSRD and the agency he hoped to create postwar almost independent of the Executive branch and Congress. Bush was never happy with the position and resigned as chairman of the RDB after a year, but remained on the oversight committee.

Despite his later ambiguous relationship with Truman, Bush’s advice on various scientific and political matters was often sought by Truman. When Truman became President and first learned of the atomic bomb, Bush briefed him on the scientific aspects. Soon after, during June 1945, Bush was on the committee advising Truman to use the atomic bomb against Japan at the earliest opportunity. In “Pieces of Action,” Bush wrote that he thought use of the bomb would shorten the war and prevent many American casualties. Bush's vision of how to apply the lessons of OSRD to peacetime, Science, The Endless Frontier, was commissioned by Roosevelt in a letter of Nov 1944, was written during the following months, and—Roosevelt having died in the meantime—delivered to Truman in July 1945.

Immediately after the war, there were debates about future uses of atomic energy and whether it should be placed under international control. During early 1946, Bush was appointed to a committee to develop a plan for United Nations control. According to Truman in his memoirs, Bush advised him that a proposal to Russia for exchange of scientific information would promote to international collaboration and eventually to effective control, the alternative being an atomic bomb race. Bush wrote in a memo, “The move does not involve ‘giving away the secret of the atomic bomb’. That secret resides principally in the details of construction of the bombs themselves, and in the manufacturing process. What is given and what is received is scientific knowledge.” Bush felt that attempts to maintain scientific secrets from the Russians would be of little benefit to the U.S. since they would probably obtain such secrets anyway through espionage while most American scientists would be kept ignorant of Soviet science.

During September 1949, Bush was also appointed to a scientific committee reviewing the evidence that Russia had just tested its first atomic bomb. The conclusions were relayed to Truman who then made the public announcement.

Bush continued to serve on NACA through 1948 and expressed annoyance with aircraft companies for delaying development of a turbojet engine because of the huge expense of research and development plus retooling from older piston engines. [4]

From 1947 to 1962 Bush was also on the board of directors of American Telephone and Telegraph. During 1955 Bush retired as President of the Carnegie Institution and returned to Massachusetts. From 1957 to 1962 he was chairman of the large pharmaceutical corporation Merck & Co..


One of Bush's PhD students at MIT was Frederick Terman, who was later instrumental in the development of "Silicon Valley".

Canadian government documents from 1950 and 1951 involving the Canadian Defence Research Board, Department of Transport, and Embassy in Washington D.C., implicate Bush as directing a very secret UFO study group within the U.S. Research and Development Board.[8] (See also Majestic 12) Bush's participation in this group is further documented by Stanton Friedman in his book "Top Secret/Majic" (Marlowe & Company, New York, NY 1996).

Bush was opposed to the introduction of Nazi scientists into the U.S. under the secretive Project Paperclip, thinking that they were potentially a danger to democracy.

Bush believed in a strong national defense and the role that scientific research played in it. However in an interview on his 80th birthday he expressed reservations about the arms race he had helped to create. “I do think the military is too big now—- I think we’ve overdone putting bases all over the world.” He also expressed opposition to the antiballistic missile (ABM) because it would damage arms limitation talks with the Soviets and because “I don’t think the damn thing will work.”

Bush and his wife Phoebe had two sons: Richard Davis Bush and John Hathaway Bush. Vannevar Bush died at age 84 from pneumonia after suffering a stroke during 1974 in Belmont, Massachusetts. A lengthy obituary was published on the front page of the New York Times on June 30.

The Memex

Bush introduced the concept of what he called the memex during the 1930s, which is a microfilm-based "device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory." He wanted the memex to behave like the "intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain"; essentially, causing the proposed device to be similar to the functions of a human brain. The important feature of the memex is that it ties two pieces together. Any item can lead to another immediately. [9]

After thinking about the potential of augmented memory for several years, Bush set out his thoughts at length in the essay "As We May Think" in the Atlantic Monthly, which was published July of 1945. In the article, Bush predicted that "Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified." A few months later (10 September 1945) Life magazine published a condensed version of "As We May Think," accompanied by several illustrations showing the possible appearance of a memex machine and its companion devices.

Michael Buckland, a library scientist, regards the memex as severely flawed and blames it on a limited understanding by Bush of both information science and microfilm. Bush did not refer in his popular essay to the microfilm-based workstation proposed by Leonard Townsend during 1938, or the microfilm- and electronics-based selector described in more detail and patented by Emanuel Goldberg during 1931[10].


Contributions to Digital Media

Due to the linear fashion of the memex machine, the term "Bushian" has been coined to express the linearity of html structure and also text. The "Bushian" philosophy of digital media is more focused on using facts to build something creative that will better our world. Bush sees art as a tool to help with that process. Instead of using emotion as a base, the "Bushian" view uses reason and logic. His goal is to untangle the labyrinth-shaped book and then mold it into something linear and reasonable. Bush is constantly in search of a shortcut to the end of the trial.[11]

Conservative approach

Vannevar Bush overestimated some technological challenges. His name has been applied to such underestimates in jargon. [5] He asserted that a nuclear weapon could not be made small enough to fit in the nose of a missile. In his book Modern Arms and Free Men (1949), he predicted originally that it would be ten more years before the USSR developed nuclear weapons.

Bush wrote in the foreword to Modern Arms and Free Men:

As I have been writing, the scene has continually changed, and it is still changing as the last few words are added. The President's announcement of evidence of an atomic explosion in the Soviet Union appears as the volume goes to press.

In addition, the first chapter's epigraph is the following quote from James V. Forrestal:

There are many sciences with which war is concerned, but war is not such a science itself, and any forecast for the indefinite future presupposes a certitude that is not possible.

Bush privately, and then publicly, opposed NASA's manned space program and criticized the moon exploration goals announced by President John F. Kennedy at a time when the U.S. was nearly united in supporting it. His opposition was based on fiscal reasons and on his calculated judgment that human lives would be lost in what he considered to be an extremely risky adventure, from an engineering standpoint. His warnings were largely ignored.

Honors, memberships, and affiliations


  • "A belief may be larger than a fact."
  • "Fear cannot be banished, but it can be calm and without panic; it can be mitigated by reason and evaluation. "
  • "If scientific reasoning were limited to the logical processes of arithmetic, we should not get very far in our understanding of the physical world. One might as well attempt to grasp the game of poker entirely by the use of the mathematics of probability."
  • "Science has a simple faith, which transcends utility. It is the faith that it is the privilege of man to learn to understand, and that this is his mission."
  • "The scene changes but the aspirations of men of good will persist."
  • "To pursue science is not to disparage the things of the spirit. In fact, to pursue science rightly is to furnish the framework on which the spirit may rise."


  • 1922, Principles of Electrical Engineering.
  • 1929, Operational Circuit Analysis.
  • 1945, July, "As We May Think", Atlantic Monthly.
  • 1945, Science: The Endless Frontier, a report to president Truman outlining his proposal for post-war U.S. science and technology policy
  • 1946, Endless Horizons, a collection of papers and addresses.
  • 1949, "Modern Arms and Free Men", a discussion of the role of science in preserving democratic institutions.
  • 1967, Science Is Not Enough, essays.
  • 1970, "Pieces of the Action", an examination of science and the state.

See also


  1. ^ Bush, Vannevar. "As We May Think". The New Media Reader. The MIT Press.
  2. ^ Zachary, Endless Frontier, p 3. Full quotation: "To the public, Bush was the patron saint of American science, 'one of the most important men in America.'"
  3. ^ Wardrip-Fruin, Noah and Nick Montfort, ed (2003). The New Media Reader. p. 35. The MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-23227-8.
  4. ^ Wardrip-Fruin, Noah and Nick Montfort, ed (2003). The New Media Reader. The MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-23227-8.
  5. ^ Zachary, Endless Frontier, pp 11-34
  6. ^ Wardrip-Fruin, Noah and Nick Montfort, ed (2003). The New Media Reader. p. 37. The MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-23227-8.
  7. ^ "Memorandum for Dr. Vannevar Bush". Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library.  
  8. ^ Arthur Bray, The UFO Connection, 1979, Jupiter Publishing, ISBN 0-9690135-1-5, 46-75; Grant Cameron & T. Scott Crain, UFOs, MJ-12, & the Government, 1991, MUFON, 4-7, 55-60; Timothy Good, Beyond Top Secret’’, 1996, Pan Books, 183-188, 464-66, ISBN 0-330-34928-7 [1] [2][3]
  9. ^ New Media Reader: Vannevar Bush's "As We May Think"
  10. ^ Buckland, Michael. “Emanuel Goldberg, Electronic Document Retrieval, And Vannevar Bush's Memex.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science 43, no. 4 (May 1992): 284–294.
  11. ^ Wardrip-Fruin, Noah & Montfort, Nick (2003). The New Media Reader. The MIT Press.


  • Nyce, James M.; Kahn, Paul (eds.) "From Memex to Hypertext: Vannevar Bush and the Mind's Machine". San Diego, London (...) 1991. [A reprint of all of Bush's texts regarding Memex accompanied by related Sources and Studies]
  • Waldthorp, MItchell, 2001. The Dream Machine: J. C. R. Licklider and the Revolution that Made Computing Personal. Penguin Books. Ch. 2.
  • Zachary, G. Pascal. Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century. The Free Press, 1997. ISBN 0-684-82821-9
  • Vannevar Bush biography in Current Biography 1947, 80–82
  • New York Times Bush obituary, June 30, 1974, p. 1

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

The world has arrived at an age of cheap complex devices of great reliability; and something is bound to come of it.

Vannevar Bush (11 March 189030 June 1974) American engineer, inventor, and politician; pioneered many of the concepts that later inspired the creation of hypertext and the World Wide Web.



  • The pioneer spirit is still vigorous within this nation. Science offers a largely unexplored hinterland for the pioneer who has the tools for his task. The rewards of such exploration both for the Nation and the individual are great. Scientific progress is one essential key to our security as a nation, to our better health, to more jobs, to higher standard of living, and to our cultural progress.
    • Letter to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt while director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development. (5 July 1945)
  • As long as scientists are free to pursue the truth wherever it may lead, there will be a flow of new scientific knowledge to those who can apply it to practical problems.

As We May Think (1945)

Essay on potential developments of information storage technology that first appeared in the The Atlantic Monthly (July 1945)
  • This has not been a scientist's war; it has been a war in which all have had a part. The scientists, burying their old professional competition in the demand of a common cause, have shared greatly and learned much. It has been exhilarating to work in effective partnership. Now, for many, this appears to be approaching an end. What are the scientists to do next?
  • There is a growing mountain of research. But there is increased evidence that we are being bogged down today as specialization extends. The investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers— conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear. Yet specialization becomes increasingly necessary for progress, and the effort to bridge between disciplines is correspondingly superficial.
  • Professionally our methods of transmitting and reviewing the results of research are generations old and by now are totally inadequate for their purpose. If the aggregate time spent in writing scholarly works and in reading them could be evaluated, the ratio between these amounts of time might well be startling. Those who conscientiously attempt to keep abreast of current thought, even in restricted fields, by close and continuous reading might well shy away from an examination calculated to show how much of the previous month's efforts could be produced on call. Mendel's concept of the laws of genetics was lost to the world for a generation because his publication did not reach the few who were capable of grasping and extending it; and this sort of catastrophe is undoubtedly being repeated all about us, as truly significant attainments become lost in the mass of the inconsequential.
  • The difficulty seems to be, not so much that we publish unduly in view of the extent and variety of present-day interests, but rather that publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record. The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships.
  • Two centuries ago Leibnitz invented a calculating machine which embodied most of the essential features of recent keyboard devices, but it could not then come into use. The economics of the situation were against it: the labor involved in constructing it, before the days of mass production, exceeded the labor to be saved by its use, since all it could accomplish could be duplicated by sufficient use of pencil and paper. Moreover, it would have been subject to frequent breakdown, so that it could not have been depended upon; for at that time and long after, complexity and unreliability were synonymous.
  • Babbage, even with remarkably generous support for his time, could not produce his great arithmetical machine. His idea was sound enough, but construction and maintenance costs were then too heavy. Had a Pharaoh been given detailed and explicit designs of an automobile, and had he understood them completely, it would have taxed the resources of his kingdom to have fashioned the thousands of parts for a single car, and that car would have broken down on the first trip to Giza.
  • Machines with interchangeable parts can now be constructed with great economy of effort. In spite of much complexity, they perform reliably. Witness the humble typewriter, or the movie camera, or the automobile.
  • A spider web of metal, sealed in a thin glass container, a wire heated to brilliant glow, in short, the thermionic tube of radio sets, is made by the hundred million, tossed about in packages, plugged into sockets— and it works! Its gossamer parts, the precise location and alignment involved in its construction, would have occupied a master craftsman of the guild for months; now it is built for thirty cents. The world has arrived at an age of cheap complex devices of great reliability; and something is bound to come of it.
  • A record, if it is to be useful to science, must be continuously extended, it must be stored, and above all it must be consulted.
  • The camera hound of the future wears on his forehead a lump a little larger than a walnut. It takes pictures 3 millimeters square, later to be projected or enlarged, which after all involves only a factor of 10 beyond present practice.
  • The Encyclopoedia Britannica could be reduced to the volume of a matchbox. A library of a million volumes could be compressed into one end of a desk. If the human race has produced since the invention of movable type a total record, in the form of magazines, newspapers, books, tracts, advertising blurbs, correspondence, having a volume corresponding to a billion books, the whole affair, assembled and compressed, could be lugged off in a moving van. Mere compression, of course, is not enough; one needs not only to make and store a record but also to be able to consult it, and this aspect of the matter comes later. Even the modern great library is not generally consulted; it is nibbled by a few.
  • To make the record, we now push a pencil or tap a typewriter. Then comes the process of digestion and correction, followed by an intricate process of typesetting, printing, and distribution. To consider the first stage of the procedure, will the author of the future cease writing by hand or typewriter and talk directly to the record?
  • Much needs to occur, however, between the collection of data and observations, the extraction of parallel material from the existing record, and the final insertion of new material into the general body of the common record. For mature thought there is no mechanical substitute. But creative thought and essentially repetitive thought are very different things. For the latter there are, and may be, powerful mechanical aids.
  • Adding a column of figures is a repetitive thought process, and it was long ago properly relegated to the machine. True, the machine is sometimes controlled by the keyboard, and thought of a sort enters in reading the figures and poking the corresponding keys, but even this is avoidable.
  • The advanced arithmetical machines of the future will be electrical in nature, and they will perform at 100 times present speeds, or more.
    Moreover, they will be far more versatile than present commercial machines, so that they may readily be adapted for a wide variety of operations. They will be controlled by a control card or film, they will select their own data and manipulate it in accordance with the instructions thus inserted, they will perform complex arithmetical computations at exceedingly high speeds, and they will record results in such form as to be readily available for distribution or for later further manipulation.
  • There will always be plenty of things to compute in the detailed affairs of millions of people doing complicated things.
  • Every time one combines and records facts in accordance with established logical processes, the creative aspect of thinking is concerned only with the selection of the data and the process to be employed, and the manipulation thereafter is repetitive in nature and hence a fit matter to be relegated to the machines.
  • The needs of business, and the extensive market obviously waiting, assured the advent of mass-produced arithmetical machines just as soon as production methods were sufficiently advanced.
    With machines for advanced analysis no such situation existed; for there was and is no extensive market; the users of advanced methods of manipulating data are a very small part of the population.
  • If scientific reasoning were limited to the logical processes of arithmetic, we should not get far in our understanding of the physical world. One might as well attempt to grasp the game of poker entirely by the use of the mathematics of probability. The abacus, with its beads strung on parallel wires, led the Arabs to positional numeration and the concept of zero many centuries before the rest of the world; and it was a useful tool— so useful that it still exists.
  • It is a far cry from the abacus to the modern keyboard accounting machine. It will be an equal step to the arithmetical machine of the future. But even this new machine will not take the scientist where he needs to go. Relief must be secured from laborious detailed manipulation of higher mathematics as well, if the users of it are to free their brains for something more than repetitive detailed transformations in accordance with established rules.
  • A mathematician is not a man who can readily manipulate figures; often he cannot. He is not even a man who can readily perform the transformation of equations by the use of calculus. He is primarily an individual who is skilled in the use of symbolic logic on a high plane, and especially he is a man of intuitive judgment in the choice of the manipulative processes he employs.
  • Whenever logical processes of thought are employed— that is, whenever thought for a time runs along an accepted groove— there is an opportunity for the machine. Formal logic used to be a keen instrument in the hands of the teacher in his trying of students' souls. It is readily possible to construct a machine which will manipulate premises in accordance with formal logic, simply by the clever use of relay circuits. Put a set of premises into such a device and turn the crank, and it will readily pass out conclusion after conclusion, all in accordance with logical law, and with no more slips than would be expected of a keyboard adding machine.
  • There may be millions of fine thoughts, and the account of the experience on which they are based, all encased within stone walls of acceptable architectural form; but if the scholar can get at only one a week by diligent search, his syntheses are not likely to keep up with the current scene.
  • There is another form of selection best illustrated by the automatic telephone exchange. You dial a number and the machine selects and connects just one of a million possible stations. It does not run over them all. It pays attention only to a class given by a first digit, and so on; and thus proceeds rapidly and almost unerringly to the selected station.
  • To be able to key one sheet of a million before an operator in a second or two, with the possibility of then adding notes thereto, is suggestive in many ways. It might even be of use in libraries, but that is another story. At any rate, there are now some interesting combinations possible. One might, for example, speak to a microphone, in the manner described in connection with the speech-controlled typewriter, and thus make his selections. It would certainly beat the usual file clerk.
  • Our ineptitude in getting at the record is largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing. When data of any sort are placed in storage, they are filed alphabetically or numerically, and information is found (when it is) by tracing it down from subclass to subclass. It can be in only one place, unless duplicates are used; one has to have rules as to which path will locate it, and the rules are cumbersome. Having found one item, moreover, one has to emerge from the system and re-enter on a new path.
    The human mind does not work that way. It operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain. It has other characteristics, of course; trails that are not frequently followed are prone to fade, items are not fully permanent, memory is transitory. Yet the speed of action, the intricacy of trails, the detail of mental pictures, is awe-inspiring beyond all else in nature.
  • Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and to coin one at random, memex will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.
    It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers. Otherwise it looks like an ordinary desk.
  • Only a small part of the interior of the memex is devoted to storage, the rest to mechanism. Yet if the user inserted 5000 pages of material a day it would take him hundreds of years to fill the repository, so he can be profligate and enter material freely.
  • Most of the memex contents are purchased on microfilm ready for insertion. Books of all sorts, pictures, current periodicals, newspapers, are thus obtained and dropped into place. Business correspondence takes the same path. And there is provision for direct entry.
  • There is, of course, provision for consultation of the record by the usual scheme of indexing. If the user wishes to consult a certain book, he taps its code on the keyboard, and the title page of the book promptly appears before him, projected onto one of his viewing positions.
  • A special button transfers him immediately to the first page of the index. Any given book of his library can thus be called up and consulted with far greater facility than if it were taken from a shelf. As he has several projection positions, he can leave one item in position while he calls up another.
  • All this is conventional, except for the projection forward of present-day mechanisms and gadgetry. It affords an immediate step, however, to associative indexing, the basic idea of which is a provision whereby any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another. This is the essential feature of the memex. The process of tying two items together is the important thing.
  • Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready-made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified. The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities. The patent attorney has on call the millions of issued patents, with familiar trails to every point of his client's interest. The physician, puzzled by its patient's reactions, strikes the trail established in studying an earlier similar case, and runs rapidly through analogous case histories, with side references to the classics for the pertinent anatomy and histology. The chemist, struggling with the synthesis of an organic compound, has all the chemical literature before him in his laboratory, with trails following the analogies of compounds, and side trails to their physical and chemical behavior.
  • The historian, with a vast chronological account of a people, parallels it with a skip trail which stops only at the salient items, and can follow at any time contemporary trails which lead him all over civilization at a particular epoch. There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record. The inheritance from the master becomes, not only his additions to the world's record, but for his disciples the entire scaffolding by which they were erected.
  • Thus science may implement the ways in which man produces, stores, and consults the record of the race. It might be striking to outline the instrumentalities of the future more spectacularly, rather than to stick closely to the methods and elements now known and undergoing rapid development, as has been done here. Technical difficulties of all sorts have been ignored, certainly, but also ignored are means as yet unknown which may come any day to accelerate technical progress as violently as did the advent of the thermionic tube.
  • All our steps in creating or absorbing material of the record proceed through one of the senses— the tactile when we touch keys, the oral when we speak or listen, the visual when we read. Is it not possible that some day the path may be established more directly?
  • The impulses which flow in the arm nerves of a typist convey to her fingers the translated information which reaches her eye or ear, in order that the fingers may be caused to strike the proper keys. Might not these currents be intercepted, either in the original form in which information is conveyed to the brain, or in the marvelously metamorphosed form in which they then proceed to the hand?
  • In the outside world, all forms of intelligence, whether of sound or sight, have been reduced to the form of varying currents in an electric circuit in order that they may be transmitted. Inside the human frame exactly the same sort of process occurs. Must we always transform to mechanical movements in order to proceed from one electrical phenomenon to another? It is a suggestive thought, but it hardly warrants prediction without losing touch with reality and immediateness.
  • Presumably man's spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems. He has built a civilization so complex that he needs to mechanize his record more fully if he is to push his experiment to its logical conclusion and not merely become bogged down part way there by overtaxing his limited memory. His excursion may be more enjoyable if he can reacquire the privilege of forgetting the manifold things he does not need to have immediately at hand, with some assurance that he can find them again if they prove important.
  • The applications of science have built man a well-supplied house, and are teaching him to live healthily therein. They have enabled him to throw masses of people against another with cruel weapons. They may yet allow him truly to encompass the great record and to grow in the wisdom of race experience. He may perish in conflict before he learns to wield that record for his true good. Yet, in the application of science to the needs and desires of man, it would seem to be a singularly unfortunate stage at which to terminate the process, or to lose hope as to the outcome.

Science - The Endless Frontier (1945)

A report prepared for President Franklin D. Roosevelt as Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development (July 1945)
  • Science can be effective in the national welfare only as a member of a team, whether the conditions be peace or war. But without scientific progress no amount of achievement in other directions can insure our health, prosperity, and security as a nation in the modern world.
    • Summary
  • The responsibility for the creation of new scientific knowledge — and for most of its application — rests on that small body of men and women who understand the fundamental laws of nature and are skilled in the techniques of scientific research. We shall have rapid or slow advance on any scientific frontier depending on the number of highly qualified and trained scientists exploring it.
    • Summary
  • On the wisdom with which we bring science to bear in the war against disease, in the creation of new industries, and in the strengthening of our Armed Forces depends in large measure our future as a nation.
    • Summary
Scientific progress on a broad front results from the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown.
  • Advances in science when put to practical use mean more jobs, higher wages, shorter hours, more abundant crops, more leisure for recreation, for study, for learning how to live without the deadening drudgery which has been the burden of the common man for ages past. Advances in science will also bring higher standards of living, will lead to the prevention or cure of diseases, will promote conservation of our limited national resources, and will assure means of defense against aggression. But to achieve these objectives — to secure a high level of employment, to maintain a position of world leadership — the flow of new scientific knowledge must be both continuous and substantial.
    • Ch. 1 "Introduction"
  • Science, by itself, provides no panacea for individual, social, and economic ills. It can be effective in the national welfare only as a member of a team, whether the conditions be peace or war. But without scientific progress no amount of achievement in other directions can insure our health, prosperity, and security as a nation in the modern world.
  • The publicly and privately supported colleges, universities, and research institutes are the centers of basic research. They are the wellsprings of knowledge and understanding. As long as they are vigorous and healthy and their scientists are free to pursue the truth wherever it may lead, there will be a flow of new scientific knowledge to those who can apply it to practical problems in Government, in industry, or elsewhere.
  • Scientific progress on a broad front results from the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown. Freedom of inquiry must be preserved under any plan for Government support of science...

Science is Not Enough (1967)

Time and space are interconnected in strange ways; there is no absolute simultaneity.
  • We puzzle as to whether the universe is bounded or extends forever; whether, indeed, it may only be one universe among many. We speculate as to whether our universe began in a vast explosion, whether it pulsates between utter compression and wide diffusion, whether it is self-renewing and thus unchanged forever. And we are humble.
    But science teaches more than this. It continually reminds us that we are still ignorant and there is much to learn. Time and space are interconnected in strange ways; there is no absolute simultaneity. Within the atom occur phenomena concerning which visualization is futile, to which common sense, the guidance from our everyday experience, has no application, which yield to studies by equations that have no meaning except that they work. Mass and energy transform one into another, Gravitation, the solid rock on which Newton built, may be merely a property of the geometry of the cosmos. Life, as its details unfold before us, becomes ever more intricate, emphasizing more and more our wonder that its marvelous functioning could have been produced by chance and time. The human mind, merely in its chemical and physical aspects, takes on new inspiring attributes.
    And what is the conclusion? He who follows science blindly, and who follows it alone, comes to a barrier beyond which he cannot see. He who would tell us with the authority of scholarship a complete story of why we exist, of our mission here, has a duty to speak convincingly in a world where men increasingly think for themselves. Exhortation needs to be revised, not to weaken its power, but to increase it, for men who are no longer in the third century. As this occurs, and on the essential and central core of faith, science will of necessity be silent.
    But its silence will be the silence of humility, not the silence of disdain. A belief may be larger than a fact. A faith that is overdefined is the very faith most likely to prove inadequate to the great moments of life.
    • p. 28 - 29
  • It is Earlier Than We Think.
    • Title of Ch. IX, p. 160
  • Science has a simple faith, which transcends utility. Nearly all men of science, all men of learning for that matter, and men of simple ways too, have it in some form and in some degree. It is the faith that it is the privilege of man to learn to understand, and that this is his mission. If we abandon that mission under stress we shall abandon it forever, for stress will not cease. Knowledge for the sake of understanding, not merely to prevail, that is the essence of our being. None can define its limits, or set its ultimate boundaries.
    • Ch. X : The Search for Understanding, p. 191
  • That the threat is now intense is not a reason to abandon our quest for knowledge. It is a reason to hold it more tightly, in spite of the need for action to preserve our freedom, in spite of the distractions of living in turmoil, that it may not be lost or brushed aside by the demands of the hour. We would not neglect our duty to our country and our fellows to strive mightily to preserve our ways and our lives. There is an added duty, not inconsistent, not less. It is the duty to so live that there may be a reason for living, beyond the mere mechanisms of life. It is the duty to carry on, under stress, the search for understanding.
    • Ch. X : The Search for Understanding, p. 192

Quotes about Bush

  • Bush is responsible for the whole architecture of government support for science. Today, everyone thinks these terrific innovations came from the minds of bright kids, but they don't realize that these kids needed an environment to be in. It came from Bush. He said, "Give these people money, let them play, and they'll come up with something."
  • Vannevar Bush is a great name for playing six degrees of separation. Turn back the clock on any aspect of information technology — from the birth of Silicon Valley and the marriage of science and the military to the advent of the World Wide Web — and you find his footprints. As historian Michael Sherry says, "To understand the world of Bill Gates and Bill Clinton, start with understanding Vannevar Bush."

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Online versions of "As We May Think"


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