05/12/2021

015 – As we may think – 1945

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A belief may be larger than a fact.  Vannevar Bush

During WWI Vannevar Bush worked at the National Research Council where some 6,000 scientists used their skills to aggressive intent.

1922 Bush co-founded a company to sell the S-tube, a gaseous rectifier that advanced radio technology; this became Raytheon, a significant US defence contractor.  Bush’s equity in the organisation secured his status, allowing him to pursue broader, more significant ideas.

1927 Bush designed a differential analyser to solve differential equations with up to eighteen variables.  Completed in 1931, it was the most accurate calculator of its time.

Having witnessed the way in which scientists and the military failed to gel during WWI he wanted to change things for any future conflict.  He pressed politicians to form the National Defense Research Committee. 

Disappointed by progress, in 1940 he sought a direct audience with President F D Roosevelt when he outlined his objectives in a single- page .  Roosevelt took just ten minutes to approve them and Bush was appointed as the first NDRC chairman. 

There were to be four main thrusts – radar, chemistry and explosives, armour and ordnance, patents and inventions.

The NDRC was later renamed as the Office of Scientific Research and Development from where Bush arranged the flow of research funding to generate developments of use to the war effort.  Initially OSRD also managed the Manhattan Project. 

In July 1945 Bush published two important papers.  First came a report to the president entitled ‘Science, The Endless Frontier’; this led to the creation of the National Science Foundation.

In the same month Bush wrote ‘As We May Think’ for the ‘Atlantic Monthly’ magazine.  This expressed concern about the way in which technology had become increasingly destructive. 

His article outlined peaceful applications.  ‘Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, ‘memex’ will do. A memex is a device in which an  individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.’  He later explained the word Memex was derived from memory and index.

Bush proposed a device that would store a massive number of books, reports and correspondence that would enable knowledge to be broadly disseminated.  This collective memory would be available instantly, and encourage new knowledge by stimulating interconnections.

He likened the Memex to the way in which the brain operates but disappointingly proposed the use of microfilm screens and viewers – a vogue of that time.  However his proposal was spot on as to how one might file vast amounts of data, and then cooperatively update and access it.

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