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Vannevar Bush
4821 days ago
"Vannevar Bush was never directly involved with the creation or development of the Internet. He died before the creation of the World Wide Web. Yet many consider Bush to be the Godfather of our wired age often making reference to his 1945 essay, "As We May Think." In his article, Bush described a theoretical machine he called a "memex," which was to enhance human memory by allowing the user to store and retrieve documents linked by associations. This associative linking was very similar to what is known today as Hypertext. Indeed, Ted Nelson who later did pioneering work with hypertext credited Bush as his main influence (Zachary, 399). Others, such as J.C.R. Licklider and Douglas Englebart have also paid homage to Bush.

Bush's innovative idea for automating human memory was obviously important in the development digital age, but even more important was his influence on the institution of science in America. His work to create a relationship between the government and the scientific establishment during WWII changed the way scientific research is carried on in the U.S. and fostered the environment in which the Internet was later created.

Bush also worked on developing machines that would automate human thinking. Specialization in just about every field of academia was creating a glut of information. Something was needed to help sort through the growing store of accumulated knowledge. In the 1930' s microfilm, which had been around for nearly a century, was growing in popularity as a storage device, especially among librarians. Bush, a photography enthusiast, was quite interested in this resurgent technology. He proposed to build a machine for the FBI that could review 1,000 fingerprints a minute. They turned him down. But he continued to pursue his latest vision.

Bush called his device a rapid selector. It would be housed in a desk and could store huge amounts of information on microfilm. The user could rapidly select documents which would then be projected on screen. In the late 1930's, Bush oversaw the building of four rapid selectors. They were plagued with technical problems and hindered by the state of current technology, but he was among the very first to attempt to build a personal information processor, and these early experiences provided a solid base for his landmark article, "As We May Think."

In 1937, Bush became the president of the Carnegie Institution. The institution spent $1.5 million annually on research. The presidency of the institution came with a lot of prestige. The president influenced the direction of research in the U.S. and informally advised the government on scientific matters.

"As We May Think"

In 1945, Bush also published an article in the Atlantic Monthly called, "As We May Think." He had written earlier drafts of this article years before he actually published it. His main purpose in writing the article was to influence "thinking regarding science in the modern world" and to "emphasize the opportunity for the application of science in a field which is largely neglected by science" (Bush in Nyce & Kahn, 81). That field was the automation or augmentation of human thought.

In the article he describes 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 and offered this example in his article:

"The owner of the memex let us say, is interested in the origin and properties of the bow and arrow. Specifically he is studying why the short Turkish bow was apparently superior to the English long bow in the skirmishes of the Crusades. He has dozens of possibly pertinent books and articles in his memex. First he runs through an encyclopedia, finds an interesting but sketchy article, leaves it projected. Next, in a history, he finds another pertinent item, and ties the two together. Thus he goes, building a trail of many items. Occasionally he inserts a comment of his own, either linking it into the main trail or joining it by a side trail to a particular item. When it becomes evident that the elastic properties of available materials had a great deal to do with the bow, he branches off on a side trail which takes him through textbooks on elasticity and physical constants. He inserts a page of longhand analysis of his own. Thus he builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him." (Bush, 15).

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. "Bush was right," says Nelson (Nelson in Nyce and Kahn, 245).

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. Even when Bush was alive he seemed to always be looking toward the future, or perhaps he saw the present a little differently than most others—he was fond of saying, "It is earlier than we think" (Zachary, 408)." full text at

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