Vannevar Bush, Visionary

Vannevar Bush, an engineer and inventor born in 1890 in Massachusetts to a Universalist pastor and his wife, may not have been the first to envision e-books, personal computers, and the World Wide Web, but if someone beat him to the punch, please let me know. In his essay As We May Think, published in The Atlantic in July 1945,* Bush foresaw a day when paper and ink (i.e., print) wouldn’t be able to survive the ever-rising flood of information. In turn, he imagined what he called a “memex,” which “consists of a desk… the piece of furniture at which [the user] works. On the top are slanting translucent screens on which material can be projected for convenient reading… a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers.”

When he came to books Bush explained, “If the user wishes to consult a certain book, he taps its code on the keyboard, and the title page of the book promptly appears before him.” Deflecting a lever on the memex, he wrote, would allow the reader to “run through the book…” He also surmised, “Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready-made with a mesh of associative trails running through them…” (Our word for what Bush referred to as “associative trails” is “hyperlinks.”)

Genius of All Trades?

Just who was this twentieth-century soothsayer? For one thing, the 32-year-old cofounder of the company that would become Raytheon. For another, the Dean of the MIT School of Engineering, whose main building is named for him. Along with these and other accomplishments, Bush had a hand in the development of digital circuit design and served as president of the Carnegie Institute of Washington, now the Carnegie Institution for Science.

A one-man war college of sorts, Bush headed FDR’s U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development, which initiated the Manhattan Project and coordinated some 6,000 American scientists who carried out virtually all R & D during World War II. One fruit of these labors was Bush’s book Modern Arms and Free Men (1949), which pointed the way toward more efficient military systems and warned of any militarization of scientific research.

In Bush’s non-military guise he made a prediction about gadgetry that was more than borne out: “The world has arrived at an age of cheap, complex devices of great reliability, and something is bound to come of it.” One can only hope that, from his perch somewhere in the great beyond, he is looking down on the IT Revolution as it races ahead. And if so, is Bush amazed by what has come of those “complex devices of great reliability” or is he not surprised in the least?

*Though Dr. Bush’s crystal ball of an essay is fascinating throughout, his discussion of the proto-PC memex is found in Parts 6, 7, and 8.

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