Vannevar Bush and the Memex

Vannevar Bush (1890-1974)

On March 11, 1890, American engineer, inventor and science administrator Vannevar Bush was born. He is best known as as head of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) during World War II, through which almost all wartime military research and development was carried out, including initiation of the Manhattan Project. In computer science we know Vannevar Bush as the father of the memex, an adjustable microfilm viewer with a structure analogous to that of the World Wide Web.

The origins of the World Wide Web as a distributed hypermedia system date back further than 1990, as you might have guessed. Of course, before hypermedia there was hypertext and already in the late 1960s Ted Nelson presented the idea of Xanadu, an early hypertext system. But did you know that already in the mid 1940s – in the time when the very first computers hit the stage filling up entire rooms and performing less than you average mobile phone today – Vannevar Bush came up with the idea of the memex, the proposal of a hypermedia system based on electromechanics and microfilm, enabling the user to access information at his very ‘fingertips’

Vannevar Bush was born on March 11, 1890, in Everett, Massachusetts, as the third child and only son of Perry Bush, the local pastor, and his wife Emma Linwood. In 1892, the Bush family moved to Chelsea, Massachusetts, where Vannevar Bush graduated from Chelsea High School in 1909. Like his father before him, he attended Tufts College, which allowed students to gain a master’s degree in four years simultaneously with a bachelor’s degree. Thus, Bush graduated in 1913 receiving both bachelor of science and master of science degrees. By this time, Bush had already patented his first engineering invention, a surveying device. Next, Bush went to work for General Electric testing electrical equipment, but he was laid off after a fire broke out in his plant. In 1914, he took a position teaching math at Tufts’ sister college-Clark University, the same year he started to pursue his PhD at MIT where he earned his doctorate in engineering in less than a year ad then returned to Tufts as a assistant professor.

In the first World War in which the U.S. entered in 1917, Bush had an idea for a device that would use magnetic fields to detect submarines. He traveled to Washington and convinced the director of the National Research Council to pursue his idea, which tested successful but proved to be virtually useless in real combat. By the 1930’s Bush was working on analog computers, which 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 with as many as eighteen independent variables. Thus, Bush was one of the first to construct a machine based on the computer concepts developed in the nineteenth century by computer pioneer Charles Babbage.

Bush’s science policy activities also began in the 1930s. From 1938 to 1955 he served as president of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, one of the first privately-financed scientific research organizations in the U.S. During World War II he became director of the OSRD, a presidential appointment which made him responsible for the 6,000 scientists involved in the war effort. Research guided by the OSRD also included the development of radar and the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb. After World War II, Bush played an important role in the Federal government’s financial support of basic research leading to the establishment of the National Science Foundation.

As mentioned at the beginning Bush is most famous for his memex, envisioning an automated information management system, which later inspired many of the creators of the Internet. But, in his Atlantic Magazine article Bush also envisioned descriptions of other rarely cited but nevertheless interesting devices, such as e.g., the Cyclops Camera, “worn on forehead, it would photograph anything you see and want to record. Film would be developed at once by dry photography.” or the Vocoder, “a machine which could type when talked to”. During the next decades Bush was appointed chairman or director of many institutions including the Joint Research and Development Board of the War and Navy Departments, the Development Board of National Military Establishment, and also of AT&T.

At yovisto you can learn more about the origins of the World Wide Web and its early visionary pioneers including Vannevar Bush in Alex Wrights presentation ‘The Web that Wasn’t‘.

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