Vannevar Bush

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Vannevar Bush


American Electrical Engineer and Computer Scientist

Vannevar Bush is known as "The Godfather of Information Science." In the early 1930s he and his colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) invented the first practical analog computer, the differential analyzer. During World War II he led the Manhattan Project to develop an atomic bomb. In 1945 he wrote a visionary essay that anticipated the Internet, hypertext, and the World Wide Web by over 40 years.

Bush was born in Everett, Massachusetts, into an old New England seafaring family. His father, Richard, was a Unitarian minister. At school in Chelsea, Massachusetts, he proved to be a genius at mathematics. He received both his B.S. and M.S. from Tufts University in 1913 and his doctorate in engineering from both MIT and Harvard in 1916. The same year he married Phoebe Davis.

After teaching mathematics and electrical engineering at Tufts from 1914 to 1917, Bush did submarine-detection research for the U.S. Navy in World War I. In 1919 he returned to MIT to teach electrical power transmission, electrical engineering, and related subjects until 1939. In 1922 he co-founded the Raytheon Company, thus setting the stage for the Route 128 technology corridor around Boston and foreshadowing what President Eisenhower called in 1961 the "military-industrial complex." In 1932 he was appointed Dean of the MIT School of Engineering.

The MIT differential analyzer was cumbersome by subsequent standards of computing, but in its day it was state-of-the-art. It was a large mechanical assemblage of gears that could solve differential equations and manage as many as eighteen variables. Throughout his career Bush worked mainly with mechanical and analog computers and never appreciated the potential of digital computing.

Bush was President of the Carnegie Institution of Washington from 1939 to 1955. President Roosevelt appointed him Chairman of the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) in 1940 and Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) in 1941. As head of OSRD, he coordinated the Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb.

Even if Bush had made no scientific advances, he would be remembered for writing "As We May Think," a remarkable piece of prophecy published in the Atlantic Monthly in July 1945. At the dawn of the third millennium it remains required reading for almost all library school students in the U.S. It described a device called the "memex" that would fit on a desktop, store vast amounts of data on micro-film, allow quick search and retrieval, and display any requested information on a screen. It would be operated with a keyboard, buttons, and levers. It would be able to index data, record "trails" of searches, and select among simultaneous "projection positions." Bush thus prefigured hypertext, the graphic user interface (GUI), windows, and multitasking. He was among the first to imagine computers as more than just glorified calculators.

Among his books are Principles of Electrical Engineering (1922); Science: The Endless Frontier (1945), which led to the creation of both the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA); Endless Horizons (1949); Modern Arms and Free Men (1949); Science Is Not Enough (1967); and an autobiography, Pieces of the Action (1970).

Probably Bush's greatest contribution to the science of communication lies in the later engineers he inspired, such as Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider (1915-1990), who worked on the human-to-computer interactive interface and was one of the early developers of the Internet; Doug Engelbart (1925- ), who invented the computer mouse in 1963; Ted Nelson (1937- ), who coined the term "hypertext" in 1965; Tim Berners-Lee (1955- ), creator of the World Wide Web; and Bill Gates (1955- ), founder of Microsoft Corporation. Each of these computer scientists acknowledged "As We May Think" as a major influence, and each made significant progress toward realizing Bush's vision of fundamentally reinventing society though information technology.