Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Vannevar Bush: A Visionary...Period.


Vannevar Bush was born March 11, 1890 in Everett, Massachusetts, and he died June 28, 1974. He attended Tufts College and received a doctoral degree in Engineering from MIT. A good portion of Bush’s work included the development of analog computing (Wikipedia).

Bush was instrumental in the marriage of science, government and academic research. He established a partnership between the United States military and university research that subsequently led to the development of the ARPANET. His work, As We May Think was a visionary description of the potential use for information technology, inspiring the likes of Licklider and Engelbart to create the Internet, though the Memex was never created.

During WWII, Bush was an advisor to the President on scientific matters, and was the chair of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. In his response to President Roosevelt’s request for his input regarding continuing and communicating the scientific contributions and advances from the war effort, Vannevar Bush responded with Science The Endless Frontier in July of 1945.

Under the Roosevelt administration, Vannevar Bush was a pivotal figure in procuring government funding for research by both science laboratories and universities. He believed that independent research was important enough to be supported by the taxpayers. The symbiotic relationship between university research and the rapid development and improvement of technologies warranted governmental financial support. Perhaps it was his inclusion in all of these arenas that clarified the necessity for cooperative interaction and collaboration to move technology forward even in times of peace.

The Memex:

In much of the literature about Vannevar Bush, he is described historically as the grandfather of the Internet. His work on the Memex was a precursor to the Internet and an inspiration for HTML. In his work, As We May Think, Bush lays out a framework for a record-keeping process that operated on the premise of associative memory rather than indexing per se, and would make documents and records both permanent and accessible for consultation.

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 (Vannevar Bush; As We May Think; Atlantic Monthly; July 1945).

In As We May Think, Bush outlines his vision of expanding existing technologies toward synergy among technologies as well as efficiency and accessibility.  It is an interesting read as many of his thoughts and ideas did come to fruition…eventually. I immediately think of digital photography as the driest form of photography. Distributed computing exists in a form far beyond what Bush could have imagined in the 40s, 50s and 60s beyond militarized uses of computing. 

I believe that it was his immersion in the world of science and engineering, particularly during his time working for the government, that Bush made the connection between the present and what was possible for the future of the burgeoning technology of the time. The fact that the country was at war contributed to the proliferation of the day’s technologies, as there was an inherent need to have a collection of the best and brightest scientists, thinkers and militarists collaborating on the development of weapons as well as strategy. Vannevar Bush thought it important that this sort of “research community” continue even after the war and focus the attention toward making better everyday life for mankind.

What Bush addressed in Science The Endless Frontier in 1945 holds true in the 21st century as we direct our attention to increasing the number of scientists and researchers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. He stated that is was a matter of national security that research continue after the war and that centers of basic research (public and private institutions of higher learning) be supported by the government.

To serve effectively as the centers of basic research these institutions must be strong and healthy. They must attract our best scientists as teachers and investigators. They must offer research opportunities and sufficient compensation to enable them to compete with industry and government for the cream of scientific talent.

If the colleges, universities, and research institutes are to meet the rapidly increasing demands of industry and Government for new scientific knowledge, their basic research should be strengthened by use of public funds. (Science The Endless Frontier)


Vannevar Bush was, indeed, a visionary of his time. Most indicative of this notion is his response to President Roosevelt. Even in 1945, Bush recognized that in order to remain a powerful and productive nation, it was imperative that the United States continue not only its military research, but basic research, during times of peace. 

My sense is that Bush had a real concern for the United States and the welfare of its citizens. At the root of his beliefs seems to be accessible, affordable education and the sharing of information, research and knowledge gleaned by the military.

The National Research Foundation was established toward that end with its purpose being to,

“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” (Science The Endless Frontier).


1. Bush, Vannevar As We May Think; Atlantic Monthly; July 1945

2. Bush, Vannevar; Science The Endless Frontier; A Report to the President by Vannevar Bush, Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development; United States Government Printing Office; July, 1945

3. Wikipedia,

Daria Robbins - COMM6480

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