HP094: Vannevar Bush

HP094: Vannevar Bush

This request is from David Potesta way back in July 2005. You may remember some of David’s other requests, such as Bobby Fischer, episode 29 and John Hanson, episode 11.

Vannevar Bush

Born: March 11, 1890

Died: June 28, 1974

US government official and electrical engineer who developed the differential analyzer, the first electronic analogue computer.

Bush was born on March 11, 1890, in Chelsea, Massachusetts. He had two sisters. His father was a Universalist minister.

What is Universalism?

In Christianity, Universalism, Universal reconciliation, or universal salvation, is the doctrine that all people will eventually be saved and go to heaven at some point after they are dead. This is based on the belief that a loving God would not submit any person, regardless of their sins, to everlasting torment, but would instead reform them.

As a child, Bush was sickly and was occasionally bedridden for long stretches of time. Still, he was self-confident and sometimes got into fights with other boys. He once said, “all of [my] recent ancestors [before my father] were sea captains, and they have a way of running things without any doubt. So it may have been partly that, and partly my association with my grandfather, who was a whaling skipper. That left me with some inclination to run a show once I was in it.” (Zachary, 23).

Bush did well in school where he showed an aptitude for math. When he graduated he went off to Tufts College to study engineering. Half of his expenses were paid by a scholarship. He worked as a tutor and aid in the math department to pay the other half. Bush studied earnestly and earned a master’s degree in the time it usually takes to earn a bachelor’s degree. His academic success fueled his desire to do things his way not depending on others’ rules. This trait would become increasingly evident later in his life.

While at Tufts Bush enjoyed his first experience as an inventor. His invention was a land surveying device he called the profile tracer. It looked something like a lawnmower. As it was pushed over land it automatically calculated elevations and drew a crude map. It allowed one man to do the work usually done by three. Bush thought it would be commercially successful, but it never caught on. He learned from this failure. He learned that to become a real engineer he needed to learn more than math and physics. He needed to learn how to effectively deal with people.

After graduation from Tufts, Bush went to work for General Electric testing electrical equipment. He was laid off after a fire broke out in his plant.

Bush taught at Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts, from 1914 to 1917. After conducting submarine-detection research for the US Navy, he joined the facility for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) at Cambridge in 1919. In the late 1920s he devised the network analyzer to simulate the performance of large electrical networks. In 1930 he worked with a team at MIT to build the differential analyzer for solving differential equations. The finished machine, which could handle up to 18 independent variables, foreshadowed the electric computers developed after World War II. Bush’s other developments included the Rapid Selector, a device using a code and microfilm to facilitate information retrieval.

In 1940 Bush was appointed chairman of the National Defense Research Committee. The following year he became director of the newly established Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), which coordinated the nation’s weapons-development research for World War II and advised the government on scientific research and development. Many useful innovations resulted from OSRD research and development including improvements in radar, the proximity fuse, anti-submarine tactics, and various secret devices for the OSS (the precursor of the CIA). Bush was also very closely involved in the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bomb. After the war he served as chairman of the Joint Research and Development Board and was a member of the Research and Development Board of the National Military Establishment. Bush also served as president of the Carnegie Institution from 1939 to 1955.

In the article “As We May Think”, published in Atlantic Monthly in 1945, he described a theoretical machine called a “memex.” It was an obvious extension of Bush’s earlier work with the rapid selector. The memex was also to be a storage and retrieval device using microfilm. It would consist of a desk with viewing screens, a keyboard, selection buttons and levers, and microfilm storage. Information stored on the microfilm could be retrieved rapidly and projected on a screen. The machine was to extend the powers of human memory and association. Just as the human mind forms memories through associations, the user of the memex would be able to make links between documents. Bush called these associative trails. Sound familiar?

This system is remarkably similar to modern hypertext. In fact, Ted Nelson, who coined the term “hypertext” in the 1960’s, acknowledges his debt to Bush.

Vannevar Bush died on June 30, 1974, years before the Internet became widely popular or the World Wide Web even existed. With the growing popularity of the Internet many now look back through its history and see Bush as a visionary.


Encylopaedia Britannica