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Part 7: Vannevar Bush, Missiles, and Memex

Updated: Jul 29

We finally get to discuss an American in this blog! I’m very happy, and don’t believe we could’ve picked a more significant individual than Vannevar Bush - an entrepreneur, scientist, and pioneer in information management.

Bush was born in Massachusetts and grew up in a well-off, upper middle-class family. Unlike a lot of the prodigies we’ve showcased in prior blogs, Bush was on a more typical life path of college, engineering degree, and subsequent stable career. After graduating from Tufts University, he stayed on as a faculty member before eventually leaving to get his Doctorate from MIT in 1918. From this point forward, his “typical” path would be anything but.

The first instance of divergence was in 1919. Following his graduation from MIT, Bush was hired as a faculty member and began working closely with AMRAD, the American Radio and Research Corporation. As a result of World War I ending, AMRAD lost the majority of its funding from large military contracts and needed a dramatic solution to turn the company around. Bush and his colleague Al Spencer developed the idea of a thermostatic switch, but AMRAD leadership was not interested. The pair did eventually find an outside backer, Laurence Marshall, to fund their thermostat, and the Spencer Thermostat Company was born. This was Bush's first million-dollar idea…

His second came shortly after in 1924, when him and Marshall partnered with physicist Charles Smith to develop the S-Tube, which allowed radios to operate from main power instead of batteries. This innovation meant radios could now be normal household appliances. The company was officially named Raytheon in 1925, and, yes, that is still the company’s name today. And, yes, it is the same company that manufactures missiles. Bush was now set for the rest of his life financially. He would go on to lead and contribute to many significant institutions including the Office of Science and Research Development (OSRD), NASA, MIT, and the Manhattan Project. However, when it comes to search engines, one could argue this field is where Bush had his greatest impact. That impact was the Memex.

In a similar fashion to Paul Otlet, Bush theorized there should be a way for people to expedite finding important information. He claimed indexing, the typical organization of books, was unnatural, and if a machine was to address this problem effectively, it needed to leverage non-linear association, the brain's primary learning mechanism. He published the idea for such a machine in the 1945 piece As We My Think. In this article, he summarized his idea in the following manner:

“Consider a future 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.”

A supplement to a person’s memory, what a novel concept…Unfortunately, the idea for the Memex was slightly ahead of 1940’s technology. Bush’s machine required all the information and associations to be stored on microfilm, which limited its capacity and made it impractical for commercial applications. More advanced storage methods such as high-speed electrical circuits and CPU’s would have been needed to store the vast number of associations needed to truly “supplement a person’s memory”.

Bush continued to develop the Memex throughout his life until his death in 1974. Although it would prove to be nothing more than a pie-in-the-sky concept, it did lay the groundwork for perhaps the most significant invention to date in our history of search engines – hypertext. If that term sounds awfully similar to “hyperlink”, you’d be correct. It would take the work of Ted Nelson and Douglas Engelbart to further refine Bush's idea into the foundational component of the internet and search engines that is hypertext. We will discuss this work by Ted and Doug in the next blog.

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