Sunday, March 11, 2007

As We May Think

"Almost forgotten today, he essentially invented the world as we know it: not so much the things in it, of course, but the way we think about innovation, what it means, and why it happens." -- G.P. Zachary.

Vannevar Bush was born on this day in 1890 in Everett, Massachusetts. He was that rare combination of entrepreneur, visionary and mechanic -- a person whose handiwork has left profound marks on the scientific, governmental and economic features of the 20th century landscape, and whose bold technological paradigms continue to have an impact on the information age.

After receiving his Ph.D in engineering from Harvard-MIT, Bush spent World War I developing a magnetic submarine locator for the U.S. Navy, but became frustrated with the red-tape which not only interfered with Bush's design process but resulted in only 3 devices being installed in Navy ships before the Armistice. It was then that he realized that an engineer who did not understand politics and economics and the effect of new scientific advancements on existing political and economic institutions would never amount to anything. He returned to MIT after the War and, applying his appreciation of politics and economics, plunged into both research and administration, helping to make MIT a major center for electrical engineering in the process.

While at MIT in 1935, Bush designed and built a machine for calculating complex differential equations, perhaps the first practical forerunner of all modern computers. Called the Differential Analyzer, the machine looked something like a printing press, weighing 100 tons, and to program it one had to employ screwdrivers and hammers -- but it was most effective in ballistics research, permitting the rapid calculation of artillery firing tables accounting for variables such as temperature and wind.

Also while at MIT, Bush was the driving force behind the commercialization of a great deal of technology, virtually pioneering the concept of the "university spin-off company," co-founding Raytheon Manufacturing to build radio tubes as well as a half dozen other companies which eventually not only made him a wealthy man but gave him years of first-hand entrepreneurial experience.

In 1939, Bush moved to Washington to head the independent Carnegie Institution, and the following year became the chief of Franklin Roosevelt's National Defense Research Committee. Judging that the lack of coordination between science and government was a national security risk, he used his influence to obtain government funding for science research (unheard of at the time), particularly in the area of nuclear physics. Advocating the replacement of the outmoded tradition of having the government run factories, he was the architect of the system of awarding federal contracts to business and actively promoted cooperation among government, business and academia to encourage scientific advancement.

By 1941, Bush was administering all Allied defense research with his red-tape-cutting, slash-and-burn style, playing a supervisory role in the development of everything from radar to sulfa drugs to the atom bomb. Einstein may have convinced Roosevelt that it was important, Oppenheimer may have directed the Manhattan Project, but it seems that, for better and for worse, Bush was the only man willing to herd all the cats necessary to permit the Manhattan Project to be born.

By continuing to press for governmental cooperation and the judicious use of federal funds for science after World War II, Bush kept the scientific infrastructure in place which led to the development of such programs as the Internet (through the Advanced Research Projects Agency, which he conceived) and NASA.

Bush retired from scientific administration in 1955, but by that time he had begun yet another career as a theorist. In his 1945 Atlantic Monthly article, "As We May Think," Bush described a hypothetical device called a "memex," a means for harnessing the information explosion through a universal library which could be designed to allow its owner to link in some automated fashion associated pieces of information, creating "trails" of thought which could then perhaps be shared by others. Bush's exploration of the possibilities of linking information is not only a forerunner to Ted Nelson's idea of "hypertext," but would appear to have been the germ of the idea behind the organization of Tim Berners-Lee's World Wide Web; in addition, in the same article he proposed such concepts as a machine which could type one's words as they were spoken, and a cyclops camera, to be worn on one's head for recording what one sees.

Vannevar Bush died on June 28, 1974 in Belmont, Massachusetts.

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