The Important Vannevar Bush – IEEE Spectrum

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Vannevar Bush was the primary skilled electrical engineer to publicly proclaim in influential circles that EEs are one engine of innovation and the drive behind digital expertise. As early because the Nineteen Thirties, he seen the entrepreneur and the engineer as twin forces for progress and technological development.

Born in 1890 in Massachusetts, he got here to prominence because the nation’s high designer of computer systems whereas at MIT Within the Nineteen Thirties. Throughout World Battle II, as private science and engineering adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, he led all analysis by civilians for the army and arranged the Manhattan Mission. After the conflict, he distinguished himself as a major advocate for presidency funding of science and as a number one visionary the approaching revolution in info expertise. His “As We Could Assume” article, for the July 1945 concern of The Atlantic journal, envisioned a desktop pc and a “internet” of “associative trails” that a minimum of the founders of Google cite because the inspiration for immediately’s info science and the Web.

Bush was a fount of knowledge, notably when it got here to defining the engineer’s position within the industrial analysis and growth enterprise. Throughout the course of compiling Bush’s seminal works for my new e book The Important Writings of Vannevar Bush, simply revealed by Columbia College Press (2022), I pulled out some quotations of explicit curiosity to IEEE Spectrum readers:

Engineers and Good Writing

Writing is important to the success of {an electrical} engineer, Bush wrote in 1922, in his first textbook, The Ideas of Electrical Engineering (coauthored with a colleague, William H. Timbie). The success of any engineer’s plan, Bush insisted, usually relies on good writing:

“As soon as the plan has been determined upon, he should persuade his superiors that the plan must be carried out. This convincing requires that the engineer write transient clear English, which adequately and concisely conveys the which means in a convincing approach. Good proposals have been turned down as a result of the engineers who drafted them couldn’t current them in convincing type.”

Engineers Are Pioneers

The bodily world is proscribed, however the world of concepts with out boundaries; and there are seemingly no limits particularly in expertise and science. To focus on this level, in Bush’s Science the Countless Frontier report back to President Harry S. Truman in July 1945, Bush wrote:

“The pioneer spirit remains to be vigorous inside this nation. Science provides a largely unexplored hinterland for the pioneer who has the instruments for his process.”

As We Could Assume

Bush sits at his desk in Washington on 25 September 1947 after President Truman had appointed him chairman of the Analysis and Growth board designed to maintain the U.S. forward in scientific progress.


Bush didn’t foresee the technical means by which huge quantities of knowledge may very well be saved electronically, however he accurately predicted in 1945 that radical miniaturization of knowledge was on the horizon. Writing in his most well-known essay, “As We Could Assume,” revealed in The Atlantic journal in 1945, he envisioned that

“A library of one million volumes may very well be compressed into one finish of a desk.”

Grappling With Good and Evil

Bush promoted a cold-eyed realism in regards to the unsure outcomes of discovery and invention. He tried to stability optimism and pessimism about human actions in turbulent instances. To scientists and engineers, he suggested:

“We’re embarked upon an awesome journey, and it’s our privilege to additional it. Though at instances the field that’s opened be Pandora’s, though there are each good and evil in what we study, it’s our obligation and our calling to increase [humanity’s] grasp of the universe…. By this course of, of starting to know, we now have made such progress as we now have. Although the trail be thorny, that is nonetheless the way in which during which we must always proceed if we’d lastly emerge from darkness into the sunshine.”

Envy the Duck

A grasp of metaphors, Bush looked for on a regular basis analogies to elucidate technical merchandise and processes. One in every of his favorites, from an essay, he penned in 1932 in regards to the design and engineering of materials and clothes, was the duck:

“I’ve all the time envied the duck. He can dive underneath water and are available up dry. But his coat is pervious to air correctly for his good well being, and it matches superbly. The duck seems comfy in his waterproof clothes on a scorching day, however the one raincoat I ever purchased was scorching, or it wasn’t waterproof, and it leaked on the neck when the rain drove horizontally. The Mongolians made a pervious felt that shed rain properly, and Caesar thought properly sufficient of it to undertake it. The duck can flip his head in any route, and but his masking on his neck lies marvelously easy and glossy. Columbus discovered the Indians of Central America utilizing feather clothes; however even with their instance, we nonetheless don’t emulate the duck, nor do we glance natty or comfy within the rain.”

Analysis Is the Key

Black and white photo of a man with a pipe holding large test tubes in a lab

Vannevar Bush, 3 March 1942.


Earlier than there was a “information economic system,” and earlier than innovation grew to become almost synonymous with mastering new information, Bush wrote, in 1932, in regards to the perilous future going through people and establishments that didn’t depend on analysis to boost their survival:

“The important thing to accomplishment is analysis. It needn’t be advanced, so as to be helpful, but it surely definitely must be clever. In our fashionable tempo that business is in peril which is in a static state. [Research] is a necessity [if only as] a protection in opposition to encroachment from with out.”

Versatility as Advantage

Whereas he spent a few years as a professor {of electrical} engineering at MIT, Bush sought to imbue fellow professors with a objective of being sensible, versatile, and deep. Praising English-born engineer and inventor Elihu Thomson in 1933, Bush mentioned:

“You may have confirmed us {that a} man could also be really a professor and on the similar time very sensible. And yet one more factor I want to emphasize. You may have proven us {that a} scientist or an engineer could also be, even on this advanced world, versatile and but not superficial.”

Disruption Results in New Jobs

Black and white photo of a group of six seated men smiling and laughing in front of a chalk board with scientific drawings

Physicists meet on the Radiation Laboratory on the College of California, Berkeley, in March 1940 to debate the 184-inch cyclotron. From left, they’re Ernest O. Lawrence, Arthur H. Compton, Vannevar Bush, James B. Conant, Karl T. Compton, and Alfred Loomis.

Corbis/Getty Pictures

To the query of how we finest think about the prices of technological advance, of what he seen as “progress,” Bush advised a congressional committee in 1939:

“Progress, sir, all the time pays for itself by at the least short-term disturbance. If we now have a static world…that’s beautiful in a method, but when we’re going to go forward technically or in another approach then we should anticipate at the least native disruption and short-term disruption, which implies unemployment. There isn’t any query, nonetheless, that the entire development of invention, the entire development of the introduction into business of latest units and new methods of doing previous issues has been to tremendously improve employment in the long term ….”

Peace By means of Power

The choice to work on weapons expertise, or not, was extremely private to Bush and a choice not simple to unpack. Bush opposed inflexible opposition to engaged on army issues on the grounds that peace can generally finest be preserved by means of power, writing in 1935:

“Maybe the employee on antiaircraft is extra successfully a employee for peace than his brother who condemns him. I don’t make the assertion, I pose the query.”

In 1940, as fascist Germany overran France and threatened England with invasion, and because the U.S. authorities started to contemplate army assist to Europe’s democracies, Bush answered his personal query with the assertion, “For conflict or peace, we should go away no stones unturned in analysis.”

Revere the Inventor

All through his lengthy profession as a builder of enormous analysis organizations, Bush retained his perception within the lone inventor and the daring technological entrepreneur. Chatting with an viewers {of electrical} engineers in early 1944, he mentioned:

“There should stay within the U.S. the chance for an Edison, the chance for any youth with initiative, resourcefulness, practicality, and imaginative and prescient, to create his personal title and, by his personal efforts, new issues that can are likely to make this nation vigorous and robust and protected.”

On Push-button Warfare

Black and white photo of three suited men

In a ceremony on the White Home on 27 Could 1948, President Truman introduced the medal for Advantage and Bronze Oak Leaf cluster to James Bryant Conant [right] and Vannevar Bush [left] for his or her work in atomic analysis throughout World Battle II.

Bettmann/Getty Pictures

Because the organizer of the Manhattan Mission and among the many consultants who suggested President Truman on dropping atomic bombs on Japan, Bush grew to become an essential voice after the conflict in making an attempt to calm an American public anxious about nuclear conflict. In doing so, he generally erred in his predictions, as when he dismissed, in a 1947 article in The New York Occasions, the widespread fears that nuclear weapons would sometime be launched by pushing a button (which finally grew to become doable):

“Push-button warfare be damned. This speak has accomplished plenty of hurt.… Definitely there can be improvements…however it will not be push-button warfare in any sense. A few of this ‘Buck Rogers’ pondering is plenty of hooey.”

Engineers Are Heroes

Whereas scientists appeared to seize the glory within the widespread press, Bush all the time sought to remind others that engineers are the true heroes. As he advised a congressional committee on analysis in 1963:

“A lot of what we name scientific analysis is basically engineering analysis and even straight engineering. Placing a communications satellite tv for pc into orbit, and dealing, is an engineering job, and by the way an impressive one.”

Compiled by G. Pascal Zachary. The supply of Bush’s quotations is The Important Writings of Vannevar Bush, edited by Zachary and revealed by Columbia College Press (2022). Quote No. 11 comes from The New York Occasions, 9 January 1947, “Push-Button Concepts of Battle Hit by Bush.”

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