In July 1945, Atlantic Monthly magazine published an essay by Vannevar Bush titled ‘As We May Think’, in which he pictured “a future investigator in his laboratory. His hands are free, and he is not anchored. As he moves about and observes, he photographs and comments. Time is automatically recorded to tie the two records together. If he goes into the field, he may be connected by radio to his recorder. As he ponders over his notes in the evening, he again talks his comments into the record. His typed record, as well as his photographs, may both be in miniature, so that he projects them for examination.”
At the time of publication, as nations planned for an end to the horror and chaos of World War II, Bush was a preeminent scientist with an international profile. As director of the United States National Defense Research Committee, the agency that coordinated the country’s military research, he led, according to the essay’s introduction, “the activities of some 6000 leading American scientists in the application of science to warfare”.
The job made him “the country’s most influential man of science”, says a 2018 article by the Science History Institute, which also calls Bush “one of the great overachievers of the 20th century”. It added that he “combined the skills of an engineer, a mathematician, and a scientist with the organisational abilities of a successful military leader or company president”.
Bush was born on 11 March 1890 in Everett, Massachusetts, north of Boston. He attended Tufts College, a private research university in Massachusetts that allowed students to simultaneously work towards a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in a four-year program. As a result, he received both Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in 1913. Three years later, he earned a doctorate in engineering jointly from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University.
Over the next few years, pursuing his interest in electricity, Bush held several jobs that brought him into contact with new technologies, including, in 1919, a position in the MIT department of electrical engineering. He became a full professor at MIT in 1923.
According to the Centre for Computing History, he started work in 1927 on an analog computer, called a differential analyser, that could solve differential equations with as many as 18 independent variables.
In a 1986 paper in the journal Technology and Culture, historian Larry Owens described Bush’s differential analyser. “Weighing almost a hundred tons (about 90 metric tonnes) and comprising some 3000 vacuum tubes, several thousand relays, 150 motors, and automated input units, the analyser was the most important computer in existence in the US at the end of the war.”
An exhibit note describing the analyser in the MIT museum says that during the 1930s, Bush continued to develop the device, with many MIT laboratories benefiting. During World War II, it says, the machine was used 24 hours a day, “especially to help solve problems from the MIT Radiation Laboratory”.
In July 1945 Bush submitted a report to the office of the US president titled Science: The Endless Frontier, in which he stated that “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.”
In modern terms, one of Bush’s most important contributions came almost offhandedly. The Centre for Computing History notes that although he had died before the creation or development of the internet or World Wide Web, “many consider Bush to be the godfather of our wired age”.
The idea comes from his 1945 essay, ‘As We May Think’, in which he 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.”
The Centre also says that because of his Endless Frontier report, Bush is also credited with the development of the military-industrial complex and the military funding of science in the US.
Bush died in Massachusetts on 28 June 1974.
Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
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