Vannevar Bush (March 11, 1890 – June 30, 1974; pronounced "VAN-ee-var", ˈvæˌniː.var) was an American engineer and science administrator known for his work on analog computing, his political role in the development of the atomic bomb, and the idea of the memex, which was seen decades later as a pioneering concept for the World Wide Web.
A leading figure in the development of the military-industrial complex and the military funding of science in the United States, Bush was a prominent policymaker and public intellectual ("the patron saint of American science") during World War II and the ensuing Cold War , and was in effect the first presidential science advisor. Through his public career, Bush was a proponent of democratic technocracy and of the centrality of technological innovation and entrepreneurship for both economic and geopolitical security.
During World War I he worked with the National Research Council in developing improved techniques for detecting submarines. He joined the Department of Electrical Engineering at MIT in 1919, and was a professor there from 1923–32.
In 1922, Bush and his college roommate, Laurence K. Marshall, set up the American Appliance Company to market a device called the S-tube. This was a gaseous rectifier invented by C. G. Smith that greatly improved the efficiency of radios. Bush made a lot of money from the venture. The company, renamed Raytheon, became an electronics giant and a defense contractor.
Starting from 1927, Bush constructed a Differential Analyser, an analog computer that could solve differential equations with as many as 18 independent variables. An offshoot of the work at MIT was the birth of digital circuit design theory by one of Bush's graduate students, Claude Shannon.
Bush became vice-president and dean of engineering at MIT from 1932–38. This post included many of the powers and functions subsumed by the Provost when MIT introduced this post in 1949 including some appointments of lecturers to specific posts. While at MIT, Bush urged Col. Edward C. Harwood to found the American Institute for Economic Research as an independent, scientific think tank.
In 1939 Bush accepted the prestigious appointment as president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, which awarded large sums annually for research. As president, Bush was able to influence the direction of research in the U.S. towards military objectives and could informally advise the government on scientific matters. In 1939 he fully moved into the political arena with his appointment as chairman of National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which he headed through 1941. Bush remained a member of NACA through 1948.
During World War I, Bush had seen the lack of cooperation between civilian scientists and the military. Concerned about the lack of coordination in scientific research in the U.S. and the need for all-out mobilization for defense, Bush in 1939 proposed a general directive agency in the Federal Government, which he often discussed with his colleagues at NACA, James B. Conant (President of Harvard University), Karl T. Compton (President of M.I.T.) (both pictured with Bush in photo right), and Frank B. Jewitt, President of the National Academy of Sciences.
Bush continued to press for the agency's creation. Early in 1940, at Bush's suggestion, the secretary of NACA began preparing a draft of the proposed National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) to be presented to Congress. But when Germany invaded France, Bush decided speed was of the essence and approached President Roosevelt directly. He managed to get a meeting with the President on 12 June, 1940 and took a single sheet of paper describing the proposed agency. Roosevelt approved it in ten minutes.
NDRC was functioning, with Bush as chairman and others as members, even before the agency was made official by order of the Council of National Defense on June 27, 1940. Bush quickly appointed four leading scientists to NRDC: NACA colleagues Conant, Compton, and Jewitt, and also Richard C. Tolman, dean of the graduate school at Caltech. Each was assigned an area of responsibility. Compton was in charge of radar, Conant of chemistry and explosives, Jewitt of armor and ordnance, and Tolman of patents and inventions. Government officials then complained that Bush was making a grab for power, by-passing them. Bush later agreed: "That, in fact, is exactly what it was." This co-ordination of scientific effort was instrumental in the Allies winning the Second World War. Alfred Loomis (photo above) said that "Of the men whose death in the summer of 1940 would have been the greatest calamity for America, the President is first, and Dr. Bush would be second or third."
In 1941 the NDRC was subsumed into the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) with Bush as director, which controlled the Manhattan Project until 1943 (when administration was assumed by the Army) and which also coordinated scientific research during World War II. In all, OSRD directed 30,000 men and oversaw development of some 200 weapons and instrumentalities of war, including sonar, radar, the proximity fuze, amphibious vehicles, and the Norden bomb sight, all considered critical in winning the war. At one time, two-thirds of all the nation’s physicists were working under Bush’s direction. In addition, OSRD contributed to many advances in the physical sciences and medicine, including the mass production of penicillin and sulfa drugs.
In a memo to Bush dated March 20, 1942, President Roosevelt wrote, "I have read your extremely interesting report and I agree that the time has come for a review of the work of the Office on New Weapons.... I am returning the report for you to lock up, as I think it is probably better that I should not have it in my own files.
Bush's method of management at OSRD was to direct overall policy while delegating supervision of divisions to qualified colleagues and letting them do their jobs without interference. He attempted to interpret the mandate of OSRD as narrowly as possible to avoid overtaxing his office and to prevent duplicating the efforts of other agencies. Other problems were obtaining adequate funds from the President and Congress and determining apportionment of research among government, academic, and industrial facilities. However, his most difficult problems, and also greatest successes, were keeping the confidence of the military, which distrusted the ability of civilians to observe security regulations, and fighting the draft of young scientists into the armed forces. The New York Times in its obituary described him as “a master craftsman at steering around obstacles, whether they were technical or political or bull-headed generals and admirals.” Dr. Conant commented, “To see him in action with the generals was an exhibit.”
It had been hoped by Bush and many others that with the dissolution of OSRD, an equivalent peacetime government research and development agency would replace it. Bush felt that basic research was the key to national survival, both from a military point of view and in the commercial arena, requiring continued government support for science and technology. Technical superiority could be a deterrent to future enemy aggression. In July 1945, in his report to the President Science, The Endless Frontier, Bush wrote that basic research was: "the pacemaker of technological progress” and "New products and new processes do not appear full-grown. They are founded on new principles and new conceptions, which in turn are painstakingly developed by research in the purest realms of science!" He recommended the creation of what would eventually become in 1950 the National Science Foundation (NSF), in an effort to cement the ties between academic science, industry and the military which had been forged during the war.
Simultaneously in July 1945, the Kilgore bill was introduced in Congress proposing a single science administrator appointed and removable by the President, with heavy emphasis on applied research, and a patent clause favoring a government monopoly. In contrast, the competing Magnuson bill leaned towards Bush's proposal to vest control in a panel of top scientists and civilian administrators with the executive director appointed by them, to place emphasis on basic research, and to protect private patent rights. A compromise Kilgore-Magnuson bill of February 1946 passed the Senate but died in the House because Bush threw his support to a competing bill that was a virtual duplicate of the original Magnuson bill.
In February 1947, a Senate bill was introduced to create the National Science Foundation to replace OSRD, favoring most of the features advocated by Bush, including the controversial administration by an autonomous scientific board. It passed the Senate on May 20 and the House on July 16, but was vetoed by Truman on August 6 on the grounds that the administrative officers were not properly responsible to either the President or Congress.
In the meantime Bush was still in charge of what was left of OSRD and fulfilling his duties as president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. In addition, Bush postwar had helped create the Joint Research and Development Board (JRDB) of the Army and Navy, of which he was chair. With passage of the National Security Act, signed into law in late July 1947, the JRDB became the Research and Development Board (RDB). It was to promote research through the military until a bill creating the National Science Foundation finally became law.
It was assumed President Truman would naturally appoint Bush chairman of the new agency, and behind the scenes Bush was lobbying hard for the position. But Truman’s displeasure with the form of the just-vetoed NSF bill backed by Bush now came into play. Truman viewed it as a power grab by Bush. His misgivings about Bush came out publicly on September 3, 1947: He wanted more time to think about it and reportedly told his defense chiefs that if he did appoint Bush, he planned to keep a close eye on him. However, Truman finally relented. On September 24 Bush met with Truman and Secretary of Defense James Forrestal where Truman offered the position to Bush.
Initially the RDB had a budget of 465 million dollars to be spent on "research and development for military purposes." Late in 1947, a directive issued by Forrestal further defined the duties of the board and assigned it the responsibility and authority to "resolve differences among the several departments and agencies of the military establishment."
However, the scope and authority Bush had as chairman of the RDB, was a far cry from the power and influence he enjoyed as director of OSRD and the agency he hoped to create postwar almost independent of the Executive branch and Congress. Bush was never happy with the position and resigned as chairman of the RDB after a year, but remained on the oversight committee.
Despite his later shaky relationship with Truman, Bush’s advice on various scientific and political matters was often sought out by Truman. When Truman became President and first learned of the atomic bomb, Bush briefed him on the scientific aspects. Soon after, in June 1945, Bush was on the committee advising Truman to use the atomic bomb against Japan at the earliest opportunity. In “Pieces of Action,” Bush wrote that he thought use of the bomb would shorten the war and prevent many American casualties. Bush's vision of how to apply the lessons of OSRD to peacetime, Science, The Endless Frontier, was written in July 1945 at Truman's request.
Immediately after the war, debates raged about future uses of atomic energy and whether it should be placed under international control. In early 1946, Bush was appointed to a committee to work out a plan for United Nations control. According to Truman in his memoirs, Bush advised him that a proposal to Russia for exchange of scientific information would open the door to international collaboration and eventually to effective control, the alternative being an atomic bomb race. Bush wrote in a memo, “The move does not involve ‘giving away the secret of the atomic bomb. That secret resides principally in the details of construction of the bombs themselves, and in the manufacturing process. What is given and what is received is scientific knowledge.” Bush felt that attempts to maintain scientific secrets from the Russians would be of little benefit to the U.S. since they would probably obtain such secrets anyway through espionage while most American scientists would be kept in the dark.
In September 1949, Bush was also appointed to a scientific committee reviewing the evidence that Russia had just tested its first atomic bomb. The conclusions were relayed to Truman who then made the public announcement.
Bush continued to serve on NACA through 1948 and expressed annoyance with aircraft companies for delaying development of a turbojet engine because of the huge expense of research and development plus retooling from older piston engines.
From 1947 to 1962 Bush was also on the board of directors of American Telephone and Telegraph. In 1955 Bush retired as President of the Carnegie Institution and returned to Massachusetts. From 1957 to 1962 he was chairman of the pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co..
Canadian government documents from 1950 and 1951 involving the Canadian Defence Research Board, Department of Transport, and Embassy in Washington D.C., implicate Bush as heading up a highly secret UFO study group within the U.S. Research and Development Board. (See also Majestic 12)
Bush was opposed to the introduction of Nazi scientists into the U.S. under the secretive Project Paperclip, thinking that they were potentially a danger to democracy.
Bush always believed in a strong national defense and the role that scientific research played in it. However in an interview on his 80th birthday he expressed reservations about the arms race he had helped to create. “I do think the military is too big now—I think we’ve overdone putting bases all over the world.” He also expressed opposition to the antiballistic missile (ABM) because it would damage arms limitation talks with the Soviets and because “I don’t think the damn thing will work.”
Bush and his wife Phoebe had two sons: Richard Davis Bush and John Hathaway Bush. Vannevar Bush died at age 84 from pneumonia after suffering a stroke in 1974 in Belmont, Massachusetts. A lengthy obituary was published on the front page of the New York Times on June 30.
After thinking about the potential of augmented memory for several years, Bush set out his thoughts at length in the essay "As We May Think" in the Atlantic Monthly which is described as having been written in 1936 but set aside when war loomed. He removed it from his drawer and it was published in July 1945. In the article, Bush predicted 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." A few months later (10 September 1945) Life magazine published a condensed version of "As We May Think," accompanied by several illustrations showing the possible appearance of a memex machine and its companion devices. This version of the essay was subsequently read by both Ted Nelson and Douglas Engelbart, and was a factor in their independent formulations of the various ideas that became hypertext.
Michael Buckland, a library scientist, regards the memex as severely flawed and blames it on a limited understanding by Bush of both information science and microfilm. Bush did not refer in his popular essay to the microfilm-based workstation proposed by Leonard Townsend in 1938, or the microfilm- and electronics-based selector described in more detail and patented by Emmanuel Goldberg in 1931. The memex is still an important accomplishment, because it directly inspired the development of hypertext technology.
Bush, in the foreword to "Modern Arms and Free Men" says, "As I have been writing, the scene has continually changed, and it is still changing as the last few words are added. The President's announcement of evidence of an atomic explosion in the Soviet Union appears as the volume goes to press." In addition the first chapter's epigraph is the following quote from James V. Forrestal, "There are many sciences with which war is concerned, but war is not such a science itself, and any forecast for the indefinite future presupposes a certitude that is not possible."
He also predicted "electronic brains" the size of the Empire State Building with a Niagara Falls–scale cooling system. While this does not look quite so far-fetched if Google's entire collection of servers is considered as a single "brain", it still falls well short of Bush's prediction.
Bush privately, and then publicly, opposed NASA's manned space program and took the unpopular stance of attacking the moon exploration goals set forth by president John F. Kennedy at a time when the U.S. was nearly perfectly united in supporting it. His opposition was based on fiscal reasons and on his calculated judgment that human lives would be lost in what he considered to be an extremely risky adventure, from an engineering standpoint. This conservative stance is taken to reinforce his reputation as a bad prophet in technological matters, since the deaths in Project Apollo were on the ground, the Apollo 13 crew survived, and the two previous programs were completed without astronaut fatalities. His rational warnings were largely ignored then, and were mostly forgotten by the time the Space Shuttle Challenger and Columbia disasters took 7 lives each in 1986 and 2003, respectively.