Sunday, November 21, 2021

Vannevar Bush Internet visionary

Vannervar Bush (1890 - 1974) was the Dean of the School of Engineering at MIT, a founder of Raytheon and the top administrator for the US during World War II. He widened research to include partnerships between government, the private sector and universities, a model that survives to this day in the US. He claimed that his leadership qualities came from his family who were sea captains and whalers. He was also a practical man with inventions and dozens of patents to his name. In addition to his Differential Analyzer, he was an administrator and visionary who not only created the environment for much of US technological development during and after World War II leading to the internet but also gave us a powerful and influential vision for what became the World Wide Web.

Differential Analyzer

Bush built his analogue Differential Analyzer in 1931, arguably the first computer. It was an analogue electrical-mechanical device with six disc integrators . The size of a small room, it could solve equations with up to 18 variables. By the late 1930s the digital mindset and technology began to emerge with the English engineer Tommy Flowers, who built vacuum tube switches as binary switches in electrical circuits. A century after Babbage the concept of the modern computer was established.

Innovation and the internet

When World War II came along he headed up Roosevelte’s National Defense Research Committee and oversaw The Manhattan Project among many others. Basic science, especially physics, he saw as the bedrock of innovation. It was technological innovation, he thought, that led to better work conditions and more “study, for learning how to live without the deadening drudgery which has been the burden for the common man for past ages”. His post war report saw the founding of the National Science Foundation, and Bush’s triad model of government, private sector and Universities became the powerhouse for America’s post war technological success. Research centres such as Bell labs, RAND Corporation, SRI and Xerox PARC were bountiful in their innovation, and all contributed to that one huge invention - the internet.

As We May Think

Bush was fascinated with the concept of augmented memory and in his wonderful 1945 article As We May Think, described the idea of a ‘Memex’. It was a vision he came back to time and time again; the storage of books, records and communications, an immense augmentation of human memory that could be accessed quickly and flexibly - basically the internet and world wide web.

Fundamental to his vision was the associative trail, to create new trails of content by linking them together in chained sequences of events, with personal contributions as side trails. Here we have the concept of hyperlinking and personal communications. This he saw as mimicking the associate nature of the human brain. He saw users calling up this indexed, motherlode of augmenting knowledge with just a few keystrokes. A process that would accelerate progress in research and science.

More than this he realised that users would be able to personally create and add knowledge and resources to the system, such as text, comments and photos, linked to main trails or in personal side trails - thus predicting concepts such as social media. He was quite precise about creating, say a personal article, sharing it and linking it to other articles, anticipating blogging. The idea of creating, connecting, annotating and sharing knowledge, on an encyclopedic scale anticipated Wikipedia and other knowledge bases. Lawyers, Doctors, Historians and other professionals would have access to the knowledge they needed to do their jobs more effectively. 

In a book published 22 years later, Science Is Not Enough (1967), he relished the idea that recent technological advances in electronics, such as photocells, transistors, magnetic tape, solid-state circuits and cathode ray tubes have brought his vision closer to reality. He saw in erasable, magnetic tape the possibility of erasure and correction, namely editing, as an important feature of his system of augmentation. Even more remarkable was his prophetic ideas around voice control and user-generated content, anticipating the personal assistants so familiar to us today. He even anticipated the automatic creation of trails, anticipating that AI and machine learning may also play a part in our interaction with such knowledge-bases.

What is astonishing is the range and depth of his vision, coupled with a realistic vision on how technology could be combined with knowledge to accelerate progress, all in the service of the creative brain. It was an astounding thought experiment.


Some, such as Eisenhower, argue that the Military-Industrial complex became, and continues to be, too large and powerful, no longer serving its original purpose of innovation, although DARPA may be a counter-argument to that thesis.


Douglas Engelbart, the visionary for the modern computer, was profoundly influenced by Bush’s vision for man-machine and quotes Bush repeatedly as the inspiration for his ideas and practical inventions such as the mouse, computer screen, and personal computer. It was Bush who inspired the ‘Mother of all demos’ the manifestation of a vision that was to be eventually realised through the personal computer and the internet. The vision was not just technological, it continued Bush’s idea of the augmentation of human capabilities for the common good, something Engelbart was to call ‘collective intelligence’. Ted Nelson, who invented ‘hypertext’, also acknowledged his deep debt to Vannervar Bush, as did Tim Berners-Lee, who specifically mentioned Bush and Engelbart and As We May Think as an inspiration for his development of the World Wide Web.


Bush, V., 1967. Science is not enough.

Bush, V., 1945. As we may think. The Atlantic Monthly, 176(1), pp.101-108.

Houston, R.D. and Harmon, G., 2007. Vannevar Bush and memex. Annual review of information science and technology, 41, p.55.

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