As We May Think | Study Guide

Vannevar Bush

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Vannevar Bush | Biography

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Early Life and Education

Dr. Vannevar Bush was born in Everett, Massachusetts, on March 11, 1890. As a child, Bush was very good at mathematics and possessed a strong will. He attended Tufts University after graduating high school. Tufts University was a prestigious private college in Massachusetts.

Bush was a popular student at Tufts University and was very involved in the social life on campus. Bush graduated in 1913 with his bachelor's degree and master's degree in science. That same year he started to work for General Electric (GE) in its test department.

After working at GE until 1914, Bush briefly taught mathematics at Tufts University. In 1916 he married Phoebe Davis (1892–1969). He earned a joint doctoral degree in electrical engineering from Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Early Career

Bush stayed at MIT as a professor and became the dean of the School of Engineering in 1932. In 1931 he and his colleagues created the first analog computer that could solve differential equations. This machine called the Differential Analyzer was huge and had many different components. It took up an entire room.

Bush continued to invent computers that solved complex arithmetic. The U.S. Army took notice of his work and created a more advanced version of his machine to trace and map explosives. The U.S. Navy heard about his work and asked him to create a machine to break codes used by foreign countries. In 1938 Bush became the head of an important scientific research organization called the Carnegie Institute.

The War Years

In the 1930s political tensions in Europe worsened, and the world came closer to world war. Bush knew that the United States would likely have to enter the war, and he wanted to make better weapons.

As the United States prepared to enter World War II (1939–45), Bush focused on helping with the war effort. Bush met with President Franklin Roosevelt when Germany invaded France in 1940. He gave Roosevelt a plan for managing the United States' military technology. Roosevelt approved Bush's plan within 15 minutes. Part of this plan was to create the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC). This government organization worked with industry, universities, and other academic institutions. It became part of the government's Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) with Bush as the director. In this position Bush became one of the United States' most powerful scientists.

Bush made huge contributions to the war effort. Not only did he have a talent for invention, but he had a gift for organizing people and projects. During the war he oversaw a budget of several million dollars and around 6,000 researchers. This group of scientists worked on everything from antibiotic research to better explosives.

Bush played a critical role in the Manhattan Project and led the Uranium Committee. The goal of the Manhattan Project was to create an atomic bomb. The project created the first atomic bomb and the two atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan. Bush was responsible for reporting the project's progress directly to President Roosevelt.

End of the War

Bush remained Director of OSRD from 1941 to 1947. In 1944 Bush wrote "Science, the Endless Frontier" which was a paper that outlined his ideas about the future of science. He gave the paper to President Roosevelt. This paper was very influential and led to the creation of the National Science Foundation in 1950.

Bush had foresight into the future of science and technology. In 1945 he wrote the article "As We May Think" which appeared in a magazine called the Atlantic. In this article Bush focused on developing machine technology to automate human thinking. He thought scientists would create a machine that would hold massive amounts of information. This machine would also allow information to be accessed quickly and projected onto the screen. He called this machine a memex.

Later Life

The memex was essentially a personal computer. Bush wrote that the machine would create "associative trails" between documents and that links would join blocks of text. This idea was the precursor to modern-day hyperlinks. "As We May Think" shows that Bush imagined the personal computer and the World Wide Web decades before they came into existence. Bush came up with many inventions during his career. He invented a mathematical calculator, instantly developing film, advances in microfilm, and a voice-activated typing machine.

After the war ended, Bush's influence in the scientific community decreased. He served on the boards of AT&T and several other companies and continued work with the government. Throughout his long life, he received many honors including the Edison Medal in 1943 and the President's National Medal of Science in 1963. Bush died on June 30, 1974, at age 84.

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