Bush, Vannevar

views updated Jun 08 2018


(b. Everett, Massachusetts. 11 March 1890; d. Belmont, Massachusetts 28 June 1974)

science and government, electrical engineering.

Vannevar Bush was a statesman of twentieth-century American science, The son of Richard Perry Bush, a Universalist minister, and of Emma Linwood Paine Bush, he rose from modest beginnings in the working-class suburbs of Boston to become a noted engineer and architect of scientific institutions in the years after World War II. Between the world wars, as a professor of electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he promoted the causes of engineering education, graduate research, and applied mathematics, and developed important computational machinery, In 1932 he became MIT’s First vice president and dean of engineering.

Bush moved to Washington in 1939 to assume the presidency of the Carnegie Institution; within a year the war emergency turned his attention from basic science to national preparedness, Capitalizing on friendships formed over the years, and strategically situated in the nation’s capital. Bush took the initiative in mobilizing the nation’s powerful communities of science and engineering for war. As chairman of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, he presided over a far-flung network of wartime laboratories from which emerged radar, the proximity fuse, amphibious landing craft, penicillin, and the atomic bomb—accomplishments that catalyzed a new public appreciation for science in the nation’s service and led to the establishment of the Atomic Energy Commission and the National Science Foundation, After the war Bush continued to advise the government in matters of science and defense, enthusiastically resumed his work at the Carnegie Institution, joined the boards of directors of Merck and AT&T, and wrote several works dealing with science and the lessons of war.

Bush’s roots reached deeply into the soil of New England. The descendant of a long line of Yankee sea captains, he retained something of the salty independence of the sea. His father, Perry Bush, had left the ancestral home in Provincetown to escape sectarian controversy, moving to the suburbs of Boston, where he abandoned his traditional Methodism and studied for the Universalist ministry at Tufts College, In Everett and later for many years in Chelsea, Perry Bush was a widely known and much-loved pastor with a penchant for turning mundane occasions to religious ends. A liberal Protestant, he was on the periphery of orthodox society, excluded, as were Jews and Catholies, from local institutions like the YMCA. Marginal status provoked his sympathy for the underprivileged, however, and he proved an inspired mixer In these ways especially. Perry Bush deeply influenced his son, who throughout his life maintained a fondness for putting the ordinary to extraordinary use, was proud of his ability to move between circles powerful and ordinary, and, profoundly affected by his fathers commitment to his pastoral profession, was wont to describe the vocation of engineering as itself a ministry.

In 1909 Bush enrolled at Tufts College. There he acquired a firm foundation in the art and science of engineering and entered into the vigorous extra-curricular life of a turn-of-the-century college. He joined the engineering fraternity, trekked to the theater in Boston, served as the president of his junior class, and delivered speeches at banquets. He turned out for track, ran the middle distances, and managed the football team. Like other Tufts undergraduates, he attended daily chapel—often attentively, no doubt, and at other times scribbling mathematical diagrams on the back of his seating ticket.

Bush studied with a venueance. compensating for illness that lost him a year of high school and part of his sophomore year in college. In four years Bush learned his way around the generators and currents that characterized early electrical engineering and began a lifelong romance with invention that along the way generated an abiding interest in the workings of the United States patent system. As a senior he received his first patent for the profile tracer, a surveying instrument that automatically recorded profiles of elevation. The tracer contained in embryonic form the disk integrators that were to become an important part of his later analog computers. In 1913, when he received both the B.S. and the M.S., he addressed his graduating class on “the poetry of mathematics.”

The professional programs at Tufts were sheltered within an undogmatic Universalism that stressed a common humanism and a commitment to public service. Gardner Anthony, the dean of engineering and a noted educator, promoted the graphic elements in engineering, defending mechanical drawing as a universal language that distinguished the competent man from the incompetent. William Ransom, a mathematician, stressed practical problem solving while encouraging more speculative and playful topics that introduced his students to creative mathematical thinking. The influence of Anthony and Ransom, alloyed with the professional ethos that pervaded the curriculum at Tufts, left an indelible mark on Bush’s career in engineering.

After receiving his master’s degree in 1913, Bush was hired as a “test man” by General Electric at Schenectady. New York. Fired after a year, he talked himself into a job at Tufts teaching mathematics to the women students of Jackson College; he also taught physics to premed students. A year as an instructor whetted his appetite for further study. That summer he worked in the New York Navy Yard as an electrical inspector before enrolling, in the fall of 1915, in the graduate program at Clark University to study mathematical physics with Arthur Gordon Webster. He quickly abandoned Clark and a $1, 500 scholarship, and found himself back in Chelsea, headed toward MIT and a career in engineering.

Bush’s passage through the graduate program at MIT was meteoric. With the help of Oliver Heaviside’s operational calculus, he attacked as a dissertation problem the oscillatory behavior of electrical power lines. In one hectic year that tested the mathematical resources of the department as well as his health—curing him, somewhat surprisingly, of the illnesses that had dogged him from childhood—Bush completed his graduate work and received one of the few doctorates jointly awarded by MIT and Harvard. His doctorate, the fifth granted by MIT. symbolized the growing importance of engineering research in the decades after 1900.

In the fall of 1916 Bush returned to Tufts as an assistant professor of electrical engineering; married Phoebe Davis, the daughter of a Chelsea merchant, on 5 September (they had two sons); and settled into a dual role as teacher and consultant for the newly established American Research and Development Corporation. As the head of AMRAD’s small research laboratory. Bush discovered the world of the small, innovative, science-based firm. After the war he and Charles G. Smith developed an early rectifying tube, thereby displacing one of the cumbersome batteries that were a component of early radios and enabling the radio to use household current. AMRAD sparked Bush’s entrepreneurial ambitions and involved him in the establishment of a number of small firms, notably the Raytheon Company, which became one of the nation’s largest electronics firms and defense contractors.

In 1917, when the United States was drawn into World War I, Bush went to work on the problem of the German submarine, inventing a sub detector that worked but was never used. Rebuffed by Robert Millikan and the National Research Council, and dismayed by the organizational chaos that surrounded Edison’s Naval Consulting Board, Bush concluded that inadequate access to the centers of power and dispersal of authority had crippled the efforts of scientists to contribute to the war. He would remember the lesson in a future and greater war.

In the fall of 1919, when the academic market for engineering turned bullish. Bush moved from Tufts to MIT as associate professor of electrical power transmission; he became professor in 1923. In his early years there he assumed direction of the electrical engineering department’s research and graduate programs and helped Dugald Jackson, the department’s chairman, modernize the curriculum. In 1932 Bush became MIT’s first vice president and dean of engineering, serving as Karl Compton’s strong right arm. With growing influence Bush spoke out on such issues as the nature of engineering education, the social responsibilities of the engineering profession, and the relationships among engineering, industry, and government.

Bush’s major technical work was inspired by the need of American scientists and engineers for more adequate tools of applied mathematics. Over two decades he worked to establish a strong program in mechanical analysis at MIT. With the aim of exploring machine methods for the solution of the difficult mathematical problems confronting engineers, the program took shape in the 1920’s in attempts to deal with the behavior of long-distance transmission lines. In 1925 Bush encouraged his student Herbert Stewart to mechanize the integration of the Carson equation. The Stewart device was successful but limited, and by 1931 Bush and his students had developed the differential analyzer. Comprising several disk integrators interconnected by a variety of gearings and set in motion by motordriven shafts, the analyzer kinetically reproduced the changing terms of differential equations, tracing the desired solutions onto drawing boards. The 1931 analyzer enjoyed tremendous success, first in electrical engineering and then, in short order, in geophysics, cosmic-ray studies, and quantum mechanics, fields where progress was slowed by difficult mathematical calculations. Within a few years machines modeled upon the analyzer had multiplied within the United States and abroad.

The differential analyzer was only one of a battery of machines, including the network analyzer and the optical integraph, that were invented by Bush and his colleagues. The success of the analyzer encouraged Bush to expand his plans to make MIT an international center for machine analysis. After 1935, with the help of the Carnegie Institution of Washington and especially the Rockefeller Foundation, he built the larger, faster, more flexible machine known as the Rockefeller differential analyzer and established MIT’s Center of Analysis. Put to work during the war calculating ballistics tables and the curvature of radar antennae, the Rockefeller analyzer was the most important calculator of its time. Although quickly superseded after the war by a new generation of electronic digital computers, the analyzer clearly revealed the possibilities of machine computation. Moreover, in its decisively rational, instrumental approach to problem solving it symbolized early-twentieth-century engineering.

Bush’s horizons widened in the 1930’s. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1934, worked with Compton’s Science Advisory Board, and testified before Congress on the patent system in the monopoly hearings of 1939. He became acquainted with men who would become major actors in the events of World War II, among them Warren Weaver, an applied mathematician and officer of the Rockefeller Foundation; Frank Jewett, the head of Bell Laboratories; Conway Coe, the commissioner of patents: James Conant, the president of Harvard; and, of course, Karl Compton. In 1939 Bush left MIT to become president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington and, shortly thereafter, chairman of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Strategically positioned in the public and private spheres. Bush hoped to continue the peaceful, co-operative efforts in science and engineering that had characterized the 1920’s.

As it happened, however, war, and not peace, provided the future focus of Bush’s life. For months he had worried about conditions in Europe. and when Germany invaded France in May 1940, he went to work. With Compton, Conant. Richard Tolman (a Caltech physicist), Frank Jewett (who had become the president of the National Academy of Sciences), and two Roosevelt advisers. Oscar Cox and Harry Hopkins. Bush devised the National Defense Research Committee to facilitate scientific assistance to the government in the development of new weapons. The NDRC was established by Roosevelt on 27 June 1940, with Bush as chairman. His responsibilities were expanded two years later with the creation of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, which included NDRC, the Committee on Medical Research, the Office of Field Service, the Scientific Personnel Office, and a liaison office to centralize scientific exchange among the Allies’ governments. With OSRD. Bush took the leading role in wartime science. Such an action was justified. Bush felt, by the times and by the failures of a previous war.

During the next five years, OSRD worked wonders. From contracting laboratories came a host of electronic devices, including microwave radars and the proximity fuse, that changed the nature of warfare. Antisubmarine warfare was improved; rockets, guided missiles, explosives, and fire control benefited from OSRD involvement, as did amphibious warfare with the development of the Dukw and the Weasel. From pharmaceutical laboratories came improved antimalarial drugs, blood substitutes, and the largescale production of penicillin. Not least was the involvement of mathematicians in logistics in the new field of operations research. The atomic bomb was the most notorious achievement, and thwarted Bush and Conant’s early hope that such a weapon would prove impossible or impractical.

As important as the weapons themselves were innovations in strategies and structures. Bush’s greatest contribution to the war was, in fact, OSRD itself, an institutional device that successfully co-ordinated a vast network of university, industrial, foundation, and government laboratories employing tens of thousands and spending, by war’s end, over $500 billion. The Radiation Lab at MIT. the Johns Hopkins’ Applied Physics Laboratory, the Los Alamos Laboratory, the Clinton Works at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and the Hanford Works on the Columbia River at Richland, Washington, were all built and operated for OSRD projects.

OSRD’s success was a consequence of several factors. First, whenever possible. Bush utilized existing private facilities rather than special-purpose government laboratories in the fashion of the earlier war. To accomplish this, OSRD contracted with universities and companies for research performed on an “actual cost” basis. Second, Bush delegated technical decisions to the scientists and engineers of OSRD’s divisional committees while retaining overall responsibility for policy and liaison in his central office. With OSRD thus divided into line and staff functions, and freed from routine technical decisions. Bush was able to capitalize on administrative talents honed over the years.

With OSRD war forced a marriage of science and government unprecedented in American history. Enormously successful, it was also deeply disturbing, for it challenged traditional divisions of labor between the federal and private sectors. Theirony of Bush’s success is that an achievement that drew upon national strengths developed during more conservative decades should have provided the patterns for a new age in which science would never again be left largely to the devices of private enterprise. Much of Bush’s postwar career was spent accommodating new demands and traditional values.

The direst change in this new age was forged by the atomic bomb. Even before Trinity, the first test of the bomb, Bush and Conant sought to raise the issue of postwar consequences. Bush was deeply afraid that a shortsighted attempt to monopolize atomic knowledge would only fuel an arms race, create a dangerous world, and undermine the political values central to American democracy. Obliged to work in secrecy, through confidential memorandums and in the interim committee created to provide advice on atomic policy to President Truman, Bush argued strongly that a stable world required the sharing of atomic knowledge under the auspices of an international organization with access to national laboratories. He shaped the Truman-Attlee-King declaration of November 1945 and influenced the Baruch Plan presented to the United Nations in June 1946. The ultimate collapse of the Baruch Plan and the emergence of the cold war confirmed many of Bush’s apprehensions.

Bush’s domestic efforts were more successful, and they found fruition in the Atomic Energy Commission and the National Science Foundation. Given the urgent need to control atomic energy, the AEC was enacted in July 1946, but only after bitter struggles within the scientific and political communities that revolved around the degree of control over atomic research and the role of the military. Bush had called for the National Research Foundation in his 1945 report for Roosevelt. Science: The Endless Frontier. Yet legislation establishing the NSF encountered even more difficulties, despite universal agreement by war’s end that a national foundation had become essential to national security. Only after five difficult years, complicated by worries over political manipulation and the degree of presidential control, did the NSF become a reality in 1950.

In both developments Bush had been in at the beginning, frequently in conflict with presidential advisers seeking to protect executive authority, on the one hand, and caught between a scientific community divided over the proper relationship of science and government, on the other. Accused by critics of elitism (often justly) and of Machiavellian ambition (unjustly), Bush was forced in the heat of battle to compromise on points of debate. But in his general beliefs, he remained firm. War had made irrevocable the linking of science, prosperity, and national security. Given that fact, massive federal involvement with science was unavoidable, and it should be provided in a fashion that protected science from political interference while respecting presidential and congressional prerogatives. Bush was optimistic that both the NSF and the AEC would serve the purpose.

After the war Bush continued to serve the government in various capacities. Between 1947 and 1949 he chaired the Research and Development Board established to coordinate R&D in the newly reorganized National Military Establishment. He consulted with the Patent Office on its efforts to mechanize the searching o[ patent literature and testified before Congress on the reform of the patent system. Yet after Roosevelt’s death. Bush found the corridors of power increasingly closed. He attempted and failed to delay the H-bomb test of November 1952, believing that it seriously compromised the prospect of international control. His frustrations were aggravated by the Oppenheimer security hearings in 1954. In a short-tempered appearance before the AEC’s Personnel Security Board, he lashed out at board members, accusing them of un-American behavior in appearing to condemn the wartime director of Los Alamos for his 1949 opinion—that the H-bomb was inadvisable.

But if Bush’s advisory efforts in government were increasingly frustrated, he found satisfaction in renewed involvements in the private sector. With his unparalleled knowledge of the political economy of postwar science, he proved a valuable addition as a director of AT&T and of Merck, at Merck pursuing interests in medical research cultivated during the war. He also became a successful author, writing books dealing with science, national policy, and the lessons of war that included the important Modern Arms and Free Men (1949). Happiest of all was his renewed involvement with the Carnegie Institution. This prestigious private foundation had been profoundly affected by the war, Given its location, its accomplished scientists, and its programs in relevant disciplines, and with its president taking the leading part in the mobilization of science, the Carnegie Institution had been transformed in short order into a virtual government laboratory for the conduct of war-related applied research, its central offices playing a dual role as OSRD headquarters. The transition from pure science to defense-related R&D was abrupt and disconcerting, and captured on a smaller stage changes remaking American science in the large. Between 1945 and Bush’s retirement in 1955, the Carnegie Institution provided him a privileged location from which to reflect on these changes.

In the decade following the war, the Carnegie Institution enthusiastically resumed projects long held in check. Under Bush’s leadership it continued its studies of solar storms, the earth’s magnetic field, and residual magnetism in rocks; the photochemistry of chlorophyll and the formation of hybrid grasses; and bacterial resistance to antibiotics. The 200-inch Hale telescope was inaugurated at Palomar and began to provide new insights into the size and age of the universe; Barbara McClintock studied the unstable genes of maize; and Alfred Hershey revealed the secrets of the reproduction of the T-bacteriophages.

The Carnegie Institution could not, however, simply return to its prewar agenda. Thenew linkage between science and war assured that it had a significance greater than the sum of its programs, Several factors. Bush felt, made this so. The first was a consequence of the new relationship between the federal government and the scientific community. If national security mandated increased federal support for science, it also threatened to impose an onerous bureaucratization that would stifle innovation, militarize research, exaggerate applications, and subject the direction of science to the inexpert and the politically minded. While Bush had a deep respect for the instincts of the American people, he also feared that “creeping socialism” and the uncontrolled growth of science fueled by federal money would undermine the traditional role of the private sector. In this situation the Carnegie Institution served as both refuge and symbol—a refuge for the untrammeled pursuit of fundamental science and a symbol of the vitality of private enterprise in the search for knowledge. Moreover, during a decade when the successful development of the hydrogen bomb, increasing Soviet hostility, and the Korean War made the future appear grim, the Carnegie Institution came to represent for Bush the idealism and faith of free science.

In 1955, when Bush retired from the Carnegie Institution, he cut back on public involvements and went home to New England. There he busied himself once again with the affairs of MIT. serving as chairman of its governing corporation from 1957 to 1959 and honorary chairman from 1959 to 1971. He remained a director of AT&T until 1962 and served as chairman of Merck’s board of directors from 1957 until 1962. The most durable of Bush’s occupations, however, was invention. In 1912 he applied for his first patent: in 1974, the year of his death, he was granted his last—all in all, forty-nine over sixty-two years. In many ways Bush was most at home in the inventors workshop, and it was there that his character ws clearly revealed. In all his varied roles, he was above all inventive, a rational instrument of engineering, bringing order out of chaos and solutions to problems.

Bush may have been the outstanding example of the expert whose role at the hub of an increasingly complex society captured the American imagination in the first half of the twentieth century. These were years when the figure of the engineer became not only a necessary fact of life but also a value-laden symbol that presaged the contributions of science and technology to social progress. If the consequences of this turning to science. especrally in the light of its linkage with national security after the war, seemed to him ambiguous blessings. Bush never lost his optimism. The inventive spirit had helped Americans conquer difficulties in the past, he wrote in Pieces of the Action (1970). Given a chance, it would do so again.


I. Original Works. Among the most important of Bush’s writings are Science, the Endless Frontier: A Report to the President (Washington. D. C., 1945); Modern Arms and Free Men: A Discussion of the Role of Science in Preserving Democracy (New York. 1949): and his autobiographical Pieces of the Action (New York. 1970). A full list of Bush’s writings can be found in the short biography by Jerome Wiesner in the Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences, 50 (1979). 89–117.

There is abundant material on Bush in several archival collections, notably the Vannevar Bush Papers at the Library of Congress, which emphasize the years from 1938 on; the Bush Papers, the Compton-Killian Papers, and the Dugald Jackson Papers at MIT: and the deposits in the National Archives of the various federal agencies with which he was involved, especially those of the OSRD.

II. Secondary Literature. There is as yet no book-length treatment of Bush, although the outlines of his life and career are well treated in Wiesner’s National Academy of Science memoir cited above. There is, however, substantial information about Bush in a number of other sources. For his general importance to the institutionalization of American science, refer io Daniel Kevles. The Physicists: The History of a Scientific Community in Modern America (New York, 1978). His contributions to electrical engineering are detailed in Karl Wildes and Nilo Lindgren, A Century of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT, 1882–1982 (Cambridge, Mass., 1985); his work on the differential analyzer is dealt with in Larry Owens, “Vannevar Bush and the Differential Analyzer: The Text and Context of an Early Computer,” in Technology and Culture, 27 (1986), 63–95. Bush’s political and administrative activities during his Washington years receive considerable attention in numerous books dealing with the period; among them J. Merton England, A Patron for Pure Science: The National Science Foundation’s Formative Years, 1945–57 (Washington, D.C., 1983); and Alice Kimball Smith, A Peril and a Hope: The Scientists’ Movement in America, 1945–47 (Chicago, 1965). James Conanfs autobiography. My Several Lives: Memoirs of a Social Inventor (New York, 1970), tells much about his teamwork with Bush in the NDRC and OSRD. See also Daniel Kevles. “The National Science Foundation and the Debate over Postwar Research Policy. 1942–1945: A Political Interpretation of Science—The Endless Frontier.” in Isis, 68 (1977), 5–26, and “Scientists, the Military, and the Control of Postwar Defense Research: The Case of the Research Board for National Security, 1944–46,” in Technology and Culture, 16 (1975), 20–47: also Nathan Reingold. “Vannevar Bush’s New Deal for Research: Or the Triumph of the Old Order,” in Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences, 17 (1987), 299–344. James Killian’s The Education of a College President: A Memoir (Cambridge, Mass., 1985) contains several passages dealing with Bush.

Larry Owens

Bush, Vannevar

views updated May 21 2018

Vannevar Bush

Born March 11, 1890

Everett, Massachusetts

Died June 28, 1974

Belmont, Massachusetts

Physicist, electrical research engineer, inventor, science administrator

A brilliant visionary with his sights always set to the future, engineer and mathematician Vannevar Bush guided much of the rapid-paced scientific research and development of U.S. weapons used to win World War II (193945). As a leading scientific advisor to the federal government in the 1940s, he revolutionized the interaction and cooperation between the science community, industry, and government. In doing so, Bush charted a new course in the way science research and its eventual application was carried out in the United States. Additionally, by the start of the twenty-first century, the innovative Bush was widely regarded as the "godfather" of the computer age. By 1945 he had conceptualized a machine he dubbed the "memex" that would follow pathways of stored information to greatly enhance human access to knowledge.

A highly gifted young man

Vannevar Bush was born on March 11, 1890, in Everett, Massachusetts, to Richard Perry Bush and Emma Linwood Paine. Although Vannevar's father was a Universalist minister, his family tree was peppered with self-confident sea captains accustomed to being in command. Bush attributed his determination to "run the ship" to the influence of his grandfather, a whaling skipper.

Bush was raised in comfortable but modest surroundings in Chelsea, Massachusetts. A stellar student exhibiting considerable talent in math and physics, Bush graduated from Tufts University in 1913 with both a B.S. and M.S. While at Tufts, Bush studied the concepts of electrical engineering that fed his inclination to tinker with scientific ideas until he had invented some practical device. An early invention was a hand-pushed machine that looked like a lawn mower but was a land survey machine that could determine elevations and draw a rough map for the operator. As a young college student, Bush had not yet gathered the people and political skills it would take to effectively market his device. But he learned from experience and by the 1930s and 1940s, Bush would be a master administrator coordinating scientists, and business, military, and government leaders in the development of products to win World War II.

Within one year, 1915, Bush completed a doctorate of engineering program administered through Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard. Bush married Phoebe Davis in 1916 and they had two sons. Both boys would serve in the military during World War IIone was an army lieutenant, the other an aviation cadet. That same year, Bush returned to Tufts as an assistant professor. In 1917, eager to aid the World War I (191418) effort, he was instrumental in developing an electromagnetic locator to find submarines, only to see it deployed incorrectly and never useful in battle. This experience further pushed Bush to acquire the political and networking skills to assure his intellect and inventions were given due credit.

Scientific theory to practical use

In 1919 Bush joined the electrical engineering department of MIT as an associate professor. By 1923 he was a full professor, and head of both graduate studies and the electrical engineering research department. Continuing his meteoric rise, he soon became vice president of MIT and dean of the college of engineering. During the 1920s and 1930s he invented and built with the help of his students a machine called the differential analyzer, run mechanically by large gears to solve mathematical equations. He also wished to build an automatic machine that would go beyond mathematic equations to store the rapidly expanding information base accumulating at universities. To this end he worked with microfilm as a way to store and retrieve information. Bush's early "computers" would be used extensively before and during World War II to work through many science and engineering problems. In 1934 Bush was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, whose membership comprised the most elite scientists in the United States. During this same time period Bush held an intense interest in working with industry to turn theoretical knowledge into practical application. He concerned himself with patent rights (the exclusive right to manufacture, use, or sell a device) and served on the Science Advisory Board's Committee on the National Relation of the Patent System to the Stimulation of New Industries. Working closely with industry, he helped devise a thermostat whose development ultimately ended up as a basis for the company Texas Instruments. He also developed a gas rectifier (a gaseous tube to convert current for use in radios) so that radios were no longer dependent on batteries. Raytheon Corporation grew from this invention.

In 1937 Bush was well positioned to leave MIT and become president of Carnegie Institution of Washington (CIW). The prestigious CIW was a grouping of well-financed research institutions. At CIW Bush would influence and advise the direction of scientific research in the United States. The war heating up in Europe influenced Bush's thinking on the mobilization of research to aid development of technologies to win the war for the Allied powers (Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union).

Office of Scientific Research and Development

In 1940 Bush convinced President Franklin D. Roosevelt (18821945; served 193345; see entry) that the United States needed a functioning committee bringing together scientific, industry, military, and government leaders. The committee would coordinate development of war weapons and technologies vital to helping Great Britain and other nations fighting the military expansion of Nazi Germany. (The United States would not enter the war until December 1941, but it was supplying materials and technology to those nations who were already engaged in the fight.) President Roosevelt revived the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC), first conceived in World War I, put Bush in charge, and gave him direct access to the White House and emergency funding. By mid-1941 a new larger agency, the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), was established and funded by congressional appropriations. The OSRD pulled NDRC, and the new Committee on Medical Research (CMR), under its umbrella. Bush became the OSRD's director, making OSRD completely under civilian control, not under military or governmental control. Bush believed existing government agencies and the military were moving much too slow in research and development. Being highly flexible and able to initiate work rapidly, OSRD began awarding government contracts to the universities and industrial businesses Bush believed were best able to deliver on various projects. Universities receiving contracts included California Institute of Technology (Caltech), University of Chicago, CIW, Columbia University, Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University, and MIT. Companies included Western Electric and Bell Laboratories, General Motors, Westinghouse, Sperry, Philco, Sylvania, Studebaker, Standard Oil, Dupont, and General Electric. Bush arranged for key scientific personnel in the universities, industries, and government to receive draft deferments. Bush's civilian army of top U.S. scientists was approximately six thousand strong. OSRD also worked with essentially all of the army's and navy's research laboratories.

The OSRD limited its scope to the research and development of devices for the military. Bush left project testing, manufacturing, and delivery to the businesses and the military branches. Inevitably, controversies arose over which university and business got what, and between the military and scientists. Nevertheless, Bush used his considerable administrative skills to speed scientific findings into the practical hands of manufacturers and then to the military for their use.

Two major developments credited to OSRD guidance were in radar and the proximity fuse. Although Bush wanted to use existing facilities, a few new facilities were established. The Radiation Laboratory was created at MIT and developed superior radar systems manufactured by Sperry, Westinghouse, Philco, and Bell Labs.

Charles F. Kettering"Dean of Inventors"

Charles F. Kettering (18761958), often referred to as the "Dean of Inventors," graduated from Ohio State University in 1904. He first worked for the National Cash Register Company, where he developed the electric cash register.

Forming Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company (Delco) in 1909, he developed the electric automobile starter that was first used by Cadillac in 1912. While running Delco he also invented the "Delco," a fuel-driven generator that electrified farms decades before power lines reached rural America. In 1916 Kettering sold his thriving business to General Motors (GM) and joined the staff. Overseeing its research facilities, Kettering remained at GM for thirty-one years. In 1927 he founded the Charles F. Kettering Foundation for research to benefit mankind.

During World War II (193945), "Boss Ket" headed the National Inventors Council that examined new inventions sent to the government. He also had a regular Sunday afternoon radio program that was listened to by millions of Americans. "Horsepower is war power" is the slogan he used on the program, as related in the December 1944 issue of The National Geographic Magazine in the article "Michigan Fights." A few other Kettering inventions included spark plugs, Freon for electric refrigerators, quick-drying automobile paint, automatic transmission, the first lightweight diesel locomotive engine, and the first synthetic aviation fuel. At the close of the war in 1945, Kettering, along with Alfred Sloan (18751966), founded the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research. Located in New York City, it remained at the beginning of the twenty-first century a premier cancer research and treatment center.

At his death in 1958, Kettering held roughly 140 patents and had been presented honorary doctorate degrees by about thirty universities.

The proximity fuse is often credited with turning, then winning, the war for the Allies. The proximity fuse was a detonation device for setting off rockets, bombs, and later, torpedoes. The small fuse was guided by radar and was highly accurate in finding its target. It was first used in battle in January 1943. Manufactured by Sylvania, the fuse was developed

through the Applied Physics Laboratory, Section T, at Johns Hopkins University with U.S. Navy procurement contracts. The fuse developed was a classic example of university, industry, and military cooperation. Other devices developed and manufactured through OSRD facilitation were underwater sonar used in antisubmarine warfare, amphibious landing vehicles, mine detectors, flame throwers, the bazooka rocket, other rockets, torpedoes, and chemical warfare products. Medical advances included the drug atabrine for treating malaria, DDT to kill disease-carrying insects, plasma transfusions, and psychiatric programs to deal with those traumatized by war.

Bush and the MIT Radiation Lab also became heavily involved in the Manhattan Project, the U.S. project to develop an atomic bomb. Ultimately Bush handed OSRD's involvement in nuclear development to the Army Corps of Engineers, but he and other OSRD scientists still oversaw much of the research.

Beginning of the National Science Foundation

As the war wound down, Bush had no political interest in establishing postwar government or military policies. However, he adamantly urged President Roosevelt by late 1944 and early 1945 to establish federal support for practical research in health and national security. Bush wanted to disband OSRD, since it had been widely funded by emergency war monies, and establish a permanent research foundation that he called the National Research Foundation.

After considerable wrangling over control and funding, Congress, in 1950, finally passed legislation that President Harry S. Truman (18841972; served 194553) signed. The name of the new foundation would be the National Science Foundation (NSF). It had a tiny budget as health funds went to the expanding National Institutes of Health and national security funds went to the military. Only after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world's first satellite, in 1957 did the NSF become a major scientific research player. It then grew into one of the chief supporters of U.S. scientific endeavors throughout the rest of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century.

Never slowed down

Meanwhile, in 1945 Bush published his article "As We May Think" in the magazine the Atlantic Monthly. Based on his visionary research on computerlike devices in the 1920s and 1930s, he described a theoretical device called a "memex" that would enhance human thought and hence research. In this article, Bush is credited with putting forth the first early thoughts on automation of the human thought processes or computerization.

Bush also headed the Research and Development Board from 1946 to 1949. He labored to untangle competing military rivalries and develop an economic and rational way for the nation to carry out national defense research. Bush resigned his post and returned to CIW in 1949. He also supported J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist known as the father of the atomic bomb, when he came under congressional investigation for alleged leaks to the Soviet Union. Both Bush and Oppenheimer vigorously opposed the development and testing of a hydrogen bomb.

In 1955 Bush retired from CIW. He served as trustee and on the boards of directors of various large corporations. He also continued his research in storing information, both for libraries and as learning enhancers. The use of microfilm continued as one of his chief interests. Bush died in Belmont, Massachusetts, in 1974. He had revolutionized the way universities, private industry, and government worked together in scientific research and development. The military-industrial-university complex that developed after World War II was largely based on examples set by the operations of Bush's OSRD.

For More Information


Baxter, James P. Scientists Against Time. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1968.

Buderi, Robert. The Invention that Changed the World: How a Small Group of Radar Pioneers Won the Second World War and Launched a Technological Revolution. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.

Burke, Colin B. Information and Secrecy: Vannevar Bush, Ultra, and the Other Memex. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1994.

Conant, Jennet. Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science that Changed the Course of World War II. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002.

Zachary, G. Pascal. Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century. New York: Free Press, 1997.


"Yankee Scientist." Time (April 3, 1944), pp. 5257.

Klemmer, Harvey. "Michigan Fights." The National Geographic Magazine (December 1944), pp. 676715.

Web sites

Hall of Fame, Inventor Profile: Charles Franklin Kettering. http://www.invent.org/hall_of_fame/86.html (accessed on July 18, 2004).

Internet Pioneers: Vannevar Bush. http://www.ibiblio.org/pioneers/bush.html (accessed on July 18, 2004).

Kettering Foundation. http://www.kettering.org/History/history.html (accessed on July 18, 2004).

Office of Scientific Research and Development. http://history.acusd.edu/gen/WW2Timeline/OSRD.html (accessed on July 18, 2004).

Bush, Vannevar

views updated May 23 2018


Inventor and adviser to U.S. presidents during World War II, Vannevar Bush (1890–1974), was born in Everett, Massachusetts, on March 11, and became a major architect of postwar science policy. He earned doctorates from both Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where after a few years in industry he became professor and then dean of engineering. At MIT he also contributed to development of the "differential analyzer," a precursor of the computer. In 1938 he was elected president of the Carnegie Institute of Washington, DC, and then served as director of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), which provided oversight for federal science support from 1941 to 1947. Bush later became involved in the private sector, serving as honorary chairman of the MIT Corporation from 1959 to 1971. He died in Belmont, Massachusetts, on June 30.

Policy Achievements

In 1940 Bush persuaded President Franklin D. Roosevelt to create the National Defense Research Committee, which was later subsumed under the OSRD. Arguing that success in World War II would depend largely on innovations in military technologies, Bush led the OSRD in coordinating the relationship between science, the military, and industry. Under his leadership, scientific research yielded vast improvements in military technologies such as the submarine and radar. Bush was also the top policy advisor to President Roosevelt for the Manhattan Project to create the atomic bomb. Although much OSRD work was top secret during the war, Bush obtained near celebrity status, with an article in Colliers magazine heralding him as the "man who may win or lose the war" (Ratcliff 1942).

In 1945 Bush wrote two works that pointed toward the future of science and technology. The first was a report titled Science, the Endless Frontier, addressed to President Harry S Truman. The impetus had come from President Roosevelt, whose letter of request saw in the wartime collaboration "new frontiers of the mind" to be pioneered for creating "a fuller and more fruitful America" (Bush 1945b, p. viii). In response, Bush argued that scientific progress is essential to the well-being of the nation, specifically addressing the potential of research to promote the public good by preventing and curing disease, supporting economic progress, and improving national security. Bush recommended creation of a "National Research Foundation," arguing that the government "should accept new responsibilities for promoting the creation of new scientific knowledge and the development of scientific talent in our youth" (p. 4). This idea was realized in 1950, after modification by the Steelman Commission, as the National Science Foundation (Steelman 1980 [1947]). But Bush also recognized that "progress in other fields such as the social sciences and the humanities is likewise important" (Bush 1945b, p. v).

Bush's second 1945 publication was a prescient essay, "As We May Think," that established him as a pioneer of the information age. He had been working on his differential analyzer (an analog computer) since the 1920s. This article reflected on the profound implications of such work. The specialization of the sciences had produced a glut of information that was difficult to organize, access, and share. In order to continue the expansion of the knowledge base, Bush outlined a system for storing, retrieving, and linking information. Toward this end, he imagined the memex, a mechanical device for storing information that could be consulted rapidly and flexibly.

A precursor to the personal computer, the memex desk was envisioned as using microfilm as an information storage device and having the ability to navigate and form associative linkages or "trails" within vast stores of information. This foreshadowed the notion of the "link" nearly fifty years before its popular usage, thus enabling Bush to be thought of as a conceptual creator of the Web and hypertext systems.

One other key contribution to the industrial development of science in the United States is that Bush instilled in one of his graduate students, Frederick Terman, a belief that regional economies would come to depend on strong relationships between business entrepreneurs and scientific researchers. Terman was later instrumental in forming Silicon Valley, one of the greatest concentrations of high-tech power in the world (Zachary 1997).

Policy Fallout

Bush is credited as an original defender of what has come to be called the "linear model" of science–society relations: give scientists money, and they will just naturally produce socially beneficial results; pure science leads to technology and innovation. Beginning in the decade of his death, however, such a theory was subject to increasing criticism. The economic decline of the late 1970s and 1980s, the end of the cold war in the early 1990s, and the ballooning federal budget deficits of the same period combined to stimulate a rethinking of post–World War II governmental policies toward the funding of science. Although the United States claimed the largest number of Nobel Prizes in science, its economy was in many sectors being bested by Japan, Germany, and other nations. The end of the cold war and the absence of an opposing superpower removed a major justification for continued U.S. investment in more and better high-tech weapons systems. Economic stagnation and budget deficits further called into question the effectiveness of federal investments in science.

Parallel to such political and economic questions, social studies of science challenged the idea of the purely nonpolitical character of science. For example, feminist criticisms of investments in cancer research (more money for prostate cancer than for breast cancer, despite more people dying of breast cancer) clearly illustrated how the interests of scientific researchers (mostly males) could influence the directions of science. Taken together these three types of questioning conspired to sponsor a broad reassessment of U.S. science policy—a reassessment whose most prominent feature has been increasing engagement with the social sciences.

Public science funding continues to be criticized for propagating the linear model that separates the production of scientific knowledge from society. Policy theorists are calling for a new "social contract for science" that would make science more directly accountable to benefits in health care, economic productivity, and national security.

Yet Bush himself was deeply aware of the societal context of science and technology. For example, in 1944 he proposed creation of an advisory committee on postwar U.S. nuclear legislation in order to deal with the threat that this new technology posed to international peace. In Science, the Endless Frontier, he argued for interdisciplinary science: "Science can be effective in the national welfare only as a member of a team" (1945b,
p. 1). He furthermore stated that "It would be folly to set up a program under which research in the natural sciences and medicine was expanded at the cost of the social sciences, humanities, and other studies so essential to national well-being" (p. 18). In Modern Arms and Free Men (1949), Bush tackled important questions about the role of science in a democracy. The culmination of his understanding of science as an agent of social betterment comes in the form of his aptly titled collection of essays, Science Is Not Enough (1967). Insofar as American science policy has become isolated from its social context, it has done so against Bush's own vision for the proper relationship between science and the state.


SEE ALSO Science Policy.


Bush, Vannevar. (1945a). "As We May Think." Atlantic Monthly 176(1): 101–108. Argues that postwar science should focus on making the inherited store of knowledge more accessible and imagines the memex as a device for achieving this goal.

Bush, Vannevar. (1945b). Science, the Endless Frontier. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. A foundational document in U.S. science policy that claims science is crucial for national well-being specifically in the areas of medical research, economic progress, and national security.

Bush, Vannevar. (1949). Modern Arms and Free Men: A Discussion of the Role of Science in Preserving Democracy. New York: Simon and Schuster. Presents an optimistic account of the future of freedom and individuality despite the significant threats posed to democratic values by emerging weapons technologies.

Bush, Vannevar. (1967). Science Is Not Enough. New York: Morrow. A collection of essays that discusses the limits of science both in the quest for understanding and in the fulfillment of human values.

Ratcliff, J. D. (1942). "War Brains." Colliers 109(3): 28, 40. Describes Bush's role in administering the military scientific research during World War II.

Steelman, John R. 1980 (1947). Science and Public Policy. 5 vols. New York: Arno Press. Presents a detailed analysis of the us research system in order to permit the government to manage its growing research and development operations and to coordinate the activities of government, industry, and academia. It was instrumental in shaping U.S. science policy by supporting some aspects of Science—the Endless Frontier and challenging others.

Zachary, G. Pascal. (1997). Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century. New York: Free Press. A biography that details Bush's life and evaluates his legacy.


Bush, Vannevar. (1945a). "As We May Think." Atlantic Monthly 176, no. 1. Available from http://www.theatlantic.com/unbound/flashbks/computer/bushf.htm.

Bush, Vannevar. (1945b). Science, the Endless Frontier. Available from http://www.nsf.gov/od/lpa/nsf50/vbush1945.htm.

Vannevar Bush

views updated May 17 2018

Vannevar Bush

Vannevar Bush (1890-1974) was a leader of American science and engineering during and after World War II. He was instrumental in the development of the atomic bomb and the analogue computer, as well as an administrator of government scientific activities.

By any standard, Vannevar Bush was one of the movers of the 20th century. A prominent engineer, he rose through the ranks to become the first vice president and dean of engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In 1939 he moved to Washington, D.C. to assume the presidency of the Carnegie Institution, one of the country's most prestigious and important private foundations and sources of support for scientific research. Within a year, however, the gathering clouds of war turned his energies in other directions. With the advantage of location in Washington and drawing on acquaintanceships with the leaders of American science and engineering, Bush moved quickly into the lead mobilizing the scientific community for war.

The roots of this man who became the czar of wartime science reach deeply into the soil of New England. Bush was the descendant of a long line of sea captains who made their home in Provincetown and he always kept something of the salty independence of the sea about him. He returned frequently to Cape Cod throughout his life, and often found himself drawing upon images of the sea in talking of his work in engineering. His father had left Provincetown in the 1870s, probably to escape religious tensions and a declining economy, and taken up residence in the suburbs of Boston in the small community of Everett to be near the new Universalist Tufts College. There he studied for his degree in divinity and over the next decades became one of the area's well known and well loved pastors. And there Vannevar was born to Richard Perry and Emma Linwood Bush March 11, 1890, one of three children.

For over two decades Bush was associated with two of the country's best engineering schools. One was MIT; the earlier and, in some ways, the more formative was Tufts. While small, this Universalist school had nevertheless towards the end of the century encouraged the development of a strong and innovative engineering program under the guidance of Gardner Anthony, a master of drawing and mechanical design. Here Bush developed a lifelong romance with invention which eventually culminated in a series of pioneering analogue computers during the 1920s and 1930s. Here also he acquired that graphic mathematical approach to things which became a characteristic of his work in engineering. Not least, the profoundly ethical context in which the profession of engineering gestated at Tufts combined with the pastoral commitments of his father to shape Bush's deep belief that engineering could, in fact, be a ministry devoted to social welfare and public good. Bush graduated from Tufts in 1913 with both bachelor's and master's degrees.

Between 1913 and 1919 he worked at General Electric, taught mathematics to the women at Tufts, worked as an electrical inspector in the New York Navy Yard, earned his doctorate in electrical engineering at MIT in one year in 1916, and returned again to Tufts as a young assistant professor. Here he taught for part of his time and consulted for the rest with a small company devoted to the development of radio equipment. From these modest beginnings came the Raytheon Corporation, one of New England's largest companies and a mainstay of its defense industry. Bush was one of the company's founders in the early 1920s and maintained his connections until World War II.

In 1919, just as the academic market for engineering was turning bullish after World War I, Bush joined the faculty of MIT. Starting as an associate professor of electric power transmission, he rose rapidly through the department, bypassing the chairmanship to become in 1932 MIT's first vice president and dean of engineering under the new president, Karl Compton. During these years Bush became involved in many of the issues percolating through the country's community of engineers. They ranged over the curricula and conceptual development of electrical engineering, the relationship of the engineer and the government, the characteristics of professionalism, and the large role of the engineer in American society. In his early years at the institute, Bush cooperated with the department's dynamic chairman, Dugald Jackson, in modernizing the curriculum; assumed direction of graduate training; and coordinated the research activities of the department. By the middle 1930s, as Compton's righthand man, Bush had become not only a major figure at MIT but a respected spokesman within the country's technical community.

His inventive activity during these years revolved around the notion of mechanical analysis and the development of machine methods for the solution of mathematical problems in engineering. Between 1927 and 1943 Bush developed a series of electromechanical analogue computers which greatly facilitated the solution of complex mathematical problems. In 1936 the Rockefeller Foundation awarded a major grant to MIT which resulted in the famous Rockefeller differential analyzer of World War II. The analyzer was quickly superseded by faster digital computers, but in its time it was a significant achievement and clearly revealed the possibilities for machine computation not only in engineering but in more basic fields of science. Moreover, it embodied in a concrete way the culture of engineering in which Bush had come of age.

During the war Bush headed the vital National Defense Research Committee and its successor, the Office of Scientific Research and Development. From these organizations and the laboratories they oversaw came radar, the proximity fuse, penicillin, and, of course, the atomic bomb. Such accomplishments brought fame to Bush and enormous public respect to the country's scientists. They also provided Bush great influence in the public debates and legislative battles which followed the war and which eventually gave birth to the Atomic Energy Commission in 1947 and the National Science Foundation in 1950.

In the calmer times after the war, Bush returned to his responsibilities at the Carnegie Institution. When he retired in 1955 he went home to Cambridge. He took up duties as a member of the boards of directors of Merck and Company, AT&T, the Metals and Controls Corporation, and the MIT Corporation, becoming honorary chairman of the last in 1959. He died in 1974.

After his career took its pronounced public turn with the events of World War II, Bush became a prolific and popular author of books dealing with the nature of science and the problems of science and public policy in the period of the Cold War. Science—The Endless Frontier (1945), a report written for President F. D. Roosevelt dealing with the organization of postwar science, quickly became an influential bestseller, as did his 1949 book, Modern Arms and Free Men: A Discussion of the Role of Science in Preserving Democracy.

In many ways, Bush is the outstanding example of the expert whose role at the hub of an increasingly complex society captured the imagination of American society in the early part of the 20th century. These were years in which the figure of the engineer became not only a necessary fact of life but a value-laden symbol which presaged the contributions of science and technology to human progress. If the consequences of this turning to science and engineering, especially in the light of the nuclear predicaments which followed the war, have proved ambiguous blessings, Bush himself never lost faith. The pioneering spirit helped us conquer plains and forest, Bush wrote at the end of his life in his autobiographical Pieces of the Action. Given the chance, it would do so again.

Further Reading

The best account of Bush's life, which contains as well an extensive bibliography of his writings, is Jerome Wiesner's short biography in volume 50 of the National Academy of Science's Biographical Memoirs. More anecdotal material can be found in Bush's own collection of autobiographical reminiscences, Pieces of the Action (1970), as well as in My Several Lives (1970), the autobiography of James Conant, his closest wartime collaborator. Bush's importance as a wartime administrator, as well as his general significance in the history of modern American science, have been treated in Daniel Kevles' interpretative survey, The Physicists—The Development of a Scientific Community.

Bush, Vannevar

views updated May 29 2018

Bush, Vannevar

Electrical Engineer

Vannevar Bush is best known for mobilizing U.S. scientific research during World War II. In 1913, he completed his bachelor's and master's degrees in mathematics at Tufts College in Massachusetts, and in 1916, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) jointly awarded him a doctorate in electrical engineering. After teaching at Tufts, he joined the electrical engineering department at MIT in 1919, where he would eventually be appointed dean in 1932.

At the time, electrical engineers were primarily concerned with the technical problems associated with delivering power over long distances. Bush, however, foresaw that in time the profession's role would be to develop increasingly sophisticated electrical devices for the home and for industry. In 1922, he was one of the founders of what became the Raytheon Corporation, a maker of electronics parts, and by the end of his career he held forty-nine electronics patents. His most famous inventions involved electromechanical computing devices, including analog computers.

By 1931, his most successful device, the Differential Analyzer, was up and running. It used a complicated system of cams and gears driven by steel shafts to generate practical solutions to complex physics and engineering problems. With the help of the Rockefeller Foundation, by 1935, he had developed the Rockefeller Differential Analyzer, the most powerful computer available until the arrival of early electronic computers in the mid-1940s. In a 1945 article in the Atlantic Monthly, he proposed a device that he called the Memex, an indexed machine for cross-referencing and retrieving information that foreshadowed the development of hypertext and the World Wide Web.

During World War II, Bush was the nation's driving force behind government and military sponsorship and funding of massive science projects, which until then had been funded primarily by industry and private foundations. In 1940, he was appointed chair of the National Defense Research Committee, formed to organize scientific research of interest to the military. A year later he took the helm of the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD). There he used his academic, industrial, and government contacts to organize and fund American scientists and engineers in the war against the Axis powers. Because of this work, he is often referred to as the architect of the "military-industrial complex."

Under Bush, the OSRD played a lead role in two major projects. One was to enlist universities and industry in the development of microwavebased radar systems to replace the inferior long-wave radar systems developed by the Navy in the 1930s. The other was the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb. He thus set in motion the scientific efforts that culminated in the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 at the end of World War II.

By 1949, Bush was becoming disillusioned with the military-industrial complex he helped create. That year he published Modern Arms and Free Men, a widely read book in which he warned against the danger of the militarization of science. He died in Belmont, Massachusetts, on June 28, 1974.

see also Mathematical Devices, Mechanical.

Michael J. O'Neal


Nyce, James M., and Paul Kahn, eds. From Memex to Hypertext: Vannevar Bush and the Mind's Machine. Boston: Academic Press, 1991.

Zachary, G. Pascal. Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997.

Bush, Vannevar

views updated Jun 11 2018

Bush, Vannevar (1890–1974), engineer, developer of military technology, and defense analyst.Bush graduated from Tufts University in 1913 and later taught electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While still at MIT, he cofounded a successful radio tube company: Raytheon. Over the next decade, Bush designed a series of mechanical calculators, termed differential analyzers, that were initially useful for simulating the operations of electric power grids, but by the mid‐thirties became widely seen as the world's most powerful computers. He was named president (1939) of the Carnegie Institution.

In June 1940, Bush persuaded President Franklin D. Roosevelt to name him chief of a new federal agency charged with coordinating civilian research on military problems. As chief of the National Defense Research Council (and later its parent agency, the Organization for Scientific Research and Development), Bush oversaw the creation of hundreds of military technologies, most notably radar and the proximity fuse. He neutralized skeptics within the Army and Navy Departments by relying on his direct line to Roosevelt. And he relied on experts to set technical priorities.

Bush at first thought atomic weapons might not play a part in World War II. But he changed his mind in the fall of 1941 and set in motion creation of the Manhattan Project, choosing the army to direct the crash program because he mistrusted the navy for disparaging him and other scientists. Among the first in government to foresee the darker implications of atomic weapons, Bush warned Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson in September 1944 of the possibility of “a secret arms race” that might result in the United States losing its “temporary advantage” in atomic weapons. Such race might be avoided, he suggested, “by complete international scientific and technical interchange on this subject.” Yet in summer 1945, Bush recommended that atomic bombs be dropped on Japan.

From 1945 through 1948, Bush sought to create a civilian‐dominated directorate within the U.S. military establishment that would rationalize research, setting priorities for the individual branches and limiting duplication. The services, by then intent on building their own research organizations, resisted centralized planning, but Bush succeeded in creating a Research and Development Board (RDB) within the Pentagon whose chairman (initially Bush) reported directly to the secretary of defense. The RDB laid a foundation for later, more effective coordination of military research.
[See also Atomic Scientists; Conant, James; Science, Technology, War, and the Military.]


G. Paschal Zachary , Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century, 1997.

G. Paschal Zachary