Skip to main content

"As We May Think," by Vannevar Bush

Vannevar Bush was an American engineer and inventor who was head of the US Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II. In this role he oversaw all of the military research and development, coordinating the activities of large numbers of scientists, engineers, and thinkers of his time to build weapons of war, including the Manhattan Project.

Before the war the scientists and engineers were often in competition with each other for new discoveries, or they were willing to collaborate but unable to find out about each other’s work and learn from other people’s ideas.

Because of the war, many people came together to work towards a common goal, leading to rapid advancements in many fields. Vannevar would have certainly realized the value of the increased collaboration and how much more can be accomplished when the previous barriers were removed.

In 1945, the War was coming to a close. In his essay As We May Think, Vannevar expressed his concerns that the productivity of the scientific and engineering communities would decline as the pre-war barriers returned. He wanted to see the collaboration continue, but for the betterment of humankind, not the pursuit of destruction.

He sensed society's need for a giant collection of human knowledge and saw how such a thing would benefit society. He writes:

There may be millions of fine thoughts, and the account of the experience on which they are based, all encased within stone walls of acceptable architectural form; but if the scholar can get at only one a week by diligent search, his syntheses are not likely to keep up with the current scene.

The need he saw was later filled by the Internet once the computer technology advanced to the point where such a thing could be created. Once this happened the Internet took off like wildfire because the need Vannevar described was real.

In his essay he proposes an invention called the “Memex” that would link together documents and knowledge contributed by large numbers of people. He describes how this device could work in the context of the technology that existed at the time. These descriptions seem almost prophetic, as he discusses functionality that present day Internet users would identify as hypertext, desktop computers, or online encyclopedias.

Some may say that Vannevar predicted the invention of the Internet; I disagree. He did not predict the future. He had a deep insight into the present.


Comments powered by Disqus