The Electronic Labyrinth

Vannevar Bush

Vannevar Bush (1890-1974) is the pivotal figure in hypertext research. His conception of the Memex introduced, for the first time, the idea of an easily accessible, individually configurable storehouse of knowledge. Douglas Engelbart and Ted Nelson were directly inspired by his work, and, in particular, his ground-breaking article, "As We May Think."

Bush did his undergraduate work at Tufts College, where he later taught. His master's thesis (1913) included the invention of the Profile Tracer, used in surveying work to measure distances over uneven ground. In 1919, he joined MIT's Department of Electrical Engineering, where he stayed for twenty-five years. In 1932, he was appointed vice-president and dean. At this time, Bush worked on optical and photocomposition devices, as well as a machine for rapid selection from banks of microfilm.

Further positions followed: president of the Carnegie Institute in Washington, DC (1939); chair of National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (1939); director of Office of Scientific Research and Development. This last role was a presidential appointment which made him responsible for the 6,000 scientists involved in the war effort.

During World War II, Bush worked on radar antenna profiles and the calculation of artillery firing tables. The mathematics involved was complicated and repetitive. Bush proposed the development of an analogue computer; this became the Rockefeller Differential Analyser. Unfortunately, his research was rendered obsolete by 1950 with the invention of the digital computer. It is ironic that one of the heroes of today's computer researchers was defeated in his own work by the predecessor of those selfsame computers.

Bush is most famous for his Memex, publicised in the aforementioned article in Atlantic Monthly (1945) and most readily available in Nyce and Kahn. Yet this same article also contained descriptions of devices rarely cited. These include the Cyclops Camera: "worn on forehead, it would photograph anything you see and want to record. Film would be developed at once by dry photography;" advances in microfilm; a thinking machine (actually a mathematical calculator); and a vocoder, "a machine which could type when talked to" (87).

© 1993-2000 Christopher Keep, Tim McLaughlin, Robin Parmar.
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