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Bush, Vannevar (1890-1974)

information memex machine engineering

Vannevar Bush was born March 11, 1890, in Everett, Massachusetts, son of Universalist minister Richard Perry Bush and Emma Linwood Paine Bush. As a boy, he loved to tinker. He received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering from Tufts University in 1913, earning the first of his many patents while he was still in college. In 1913, he was employed by General Electric in Schenectady, New York, but returned to Tufts in 1914 as an instructor in mathematics. He earned a doctorate in engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University in 1916 and became an assistant professor of electrical engineering at Tufts. He married Phoebe Davis in 1916, and they had two sons. In 1919, he joined MIT as associate professor of power transmission, became a full professor in 1923, and served as vice-president and dean of the School of Engineering beginning in 1932. His most notable research achievements in this period involved advances in analog computing which greatly facilitated the solution of complex mathematical problems using the differential analyzer, a machine for solving differential equations. In 1939, he moved to Washington, D.C., as president of the Carnegie Institution. He subsequently became director of the federal Office of Scientific Research and Development, where he was responsible for coordinating the work of scientists who were involved in the war effort. Following the end of World War II, he advocated continuing national support for basic scientific research, which eventually led to the establishment of the National Science Foundation. He retired from the Carnegie Institution in 1955 and returned to Massachusetts, where he died on June 28, 1974. He was the recipient of numerous awards including the National Medal of Science and was named a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1934.

The most persistent line of Bush’s inventive endeavors involved technology for processing information. The differential analyzer, an analog computer, was the most important product of this activity. Other, less successful efforts included a decoding machine for the U.S. Navy and the Rapid Selector, both limited by the state of available technology at the time of their invention. The latter device employed 35-mm film, on which microphotographed texts could be made quickly available by the use of photoelectric cells scanning a coded index.

Bush is best remembered by information scientists for the visions of devices that were described in his 1945 essay “As We May Think.” This was first published in Atlantic Monthly , followed by a summary of the major points in a brief article in Time and a condensed and illustrated version in Life. Reflecting on what direction science and technology might take following the end of World War II, Bush indicated ways in which existing photographic, controlling, and electronic techniques and their reasonable extrapolations might be applied to recording, transmitting, and reviewing the results of research. Devices described included a compact cyclops camera for capturing images, high-capacity microfilm for compact storage, a machine that could type when talked to, and high-speed computational devices. Writing in his autobiography, Pieces of the Action (1970), Bush commented in particular on his concept for the memex, the most notable device proposed in his groundbreaking essay. It would be “a machine that should be an extension of the personal memory and body of knowledge belonging to an individual, and should work in a fashion analogous to the working of the human brain—by association rather than by categorical classification”; essentially, “a memex is a filing system, a repository of information, and a scheme of searching and speedily finding a desired piece of information” (p. 190).

The analog technologies of Bush’s day made it impossible to turn the memex idea into a functioning machine, but memex is often cited by others as an inspiration for their subsequent work in information retrieval and hypertext development. Memex suggested both the possibility of a device that could serve as a personal tool in support of information work and the potential value of trails connecting pieces of information. In the conclusion of his 1945 essay, Bush forecast that “wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready-made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified” (p. 108).

Bush remained more comfortable with analog devices and made no technical contribution to modern digital computers. However, his analysis of the problem—that existing ways of handling information were inadequate—and his solution— a device that stored and organized information that was of value to an individual—were widely accepted. It took more than fifty years for Bush’s vision of memex to become fully realized with the development of personal computers, the World Wide Web, and search engines. Bush’s widely read and reprinted essay made him for decades the best-known advocate in the United States for information retrieval systems that both responded to and expanded on human inquiries.

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