"As We May Think"- Vannevar Bush's visionary article

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Vannevar Bush - short bio

Vannevar Bush (March 11, 1890 - June 30, 1974) was an American engineer and science administrator known for his work on analog computing, his political role in the development of the atomic bomb, and the idea of the memex, which was seen decades later as a pioneering concept for the World Wide Web.

A leading figure in the development of the military-industrial complex and the military funding of science in the United States, Bush was a prominent policymaker and public intellectual ("the patron saint of American science") during World War II and the ensuing Cold War , and was in effect the first presidential science advisor. Through his public career, Bush was a proponent of democratic technocracy and of the centrality of technological innovation and entrepreneurship for both economic and geopolitical security.

"As We May Think"

  • an essay by Vannevar Bush, first published in The Atlantic Monthly in July 1945.
  • a new direction for scientific efforts after the war
  • shift from increasing physical abilities to making all previous collected human knowledge more accessible.
  • a reworked and expanded version of his 1939 Mechanization and the Record.
  • an authorised mirror of the article at Simon Fraser University

Section 1

  • what is the lasting benefit brought by the man's use of science and of new instruments created?
    • control of the material environment
    • increased knowledge of his own biological processes
    • made visible the interactions of the physiological and psychological functions
  • a growing mountain of research; increased specialisation; how to keep up-to-date?
  • information overload: "The investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers' conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear."
  • there are signs of change - new and powerful instrumentalities come into use.
  • Leibnitz and Babbage - ahead of their times; economics, technologies, complexity.

Section 2

  • "A record if it is to be useful to science, must be continuously extended, it must be stored, and above all it must be consulted."
  • writing and photography - prevailing
  • on the forehead, a lump a little larger than a walnut. It takes pictures 3 millimeters square, later to be projected or enlarged,... The lens is of universal focus...There is a built-in photocell on the walnut such as we now have on at least one camera, which automatically adjusts exposure for a wide range of illumination. There is film in the walnut for a hundred exposures, and the spring for operating its shutter and shifting its film is wound once for all when the film clip is inserted. It produces its result in full color. It may well be stereoscopic, and record with spaced glass eyes, for striking improvements in stereoscopic technique are just around the corner.
  • The cord which trips its shutter may reach down a man's sleeve within easy reach of his fingers. A quick squeeze, and the picture is taken.
  • SenseCam
  • will there be dry photography?!
  • facsimile transmission
  • television
  • microphotography (Encyclopedia Britannica - the size of a matchbox)
  • new technologies become available -effects on size, cost, duplication, flexibility, repetitive processes

Section 3

  • producing the original material - pencil, typewriter
  • correction, typesetting, printing, distribution
  • alternative - talking to a stenographer or to a wax cylinder; later, the recorded sentences have to be transcribed;
  • could these two steps be merged in one?
  • operations that could be delegated to the machine - repetitive, easy to define and describe
  • accounting, counting cosmic rays
  • "There will always be plenty of things to compute in the detailed affairs of millions of people doing complicated things."

Section 4

  • The repetitive processes of thought are not confined... to matters of arithmetic and statistics.
  • no market for machines for advanced analysis - users - a very small part of the population
  • "Relief must be secured from laborious detailed manipulation of higher mathematics as well, if the users of it are to free their brains for something more than repetitive detailed transformations in accordance with established rules. A mathematician is not a man who can readily manipulate figures; often he cannot. He is not even a man who can readily perform the transformation of equations by the use of calculus. He is primarily an individual who is skilled in the use of symbolic logic on a high plane, and especially he is a man of intuitive judgment in the choice of the manipulative processes he employs."

Section 5

  • "Whenever logical processes of thought are employed ”that is, whenever thought for a time runs along an accepted groove”there is an opportunity for the machine. "
  • "Formal logic used to be a keen instrument in the hands of the teacher in his trying of students' souls. It is readily possible to construct a machine which will manipulate premises in accordance with formal logic, simply by the clever use of relay circuits. Put a set of premises into such a device and turn the crank, and it will readily pass out conclusion after conclusion, all in accordance with logical law, and with no more slips than would be expected of a keyboard adding machine."
  • How does this sound like?
  • So much for the manipulation of ideas and their insertion into the record. ...yet even in its present bulk we can hardly consult it. This is a much larger matter than merely the extraction of data for the purposes of scientific research; it involves the entire process by which man profits by his inheritance of acquired knowledge." How do we look at what's out there?!
  • personnel problems - employee cards sorted by a machine - all employees that live in Trenton and know Spanish
  • sales in a big department store
  • rapid selection & distant projection

Section 6

The human mind operates by association

  • "The real heart of the matter of selection, however, goes deeper than a lag in the adoption of mechanisms by libraries, or a lack of development of devices for their use. Our ineptitude in getting at the record is largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing."
  • "The human mind does not work that way. It operates by association."
  • "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."

Memex - A Proto-Hypertext System

  • the device - electronically linked to a library and able to display books and films from the library and automatically follow cross-references from one work to another.
  • not only offering linked information to a user, but also a tool for establishing the links.
  • a combination of electromechanical controls and microfilm cameras and readers, all integrated into a large desk.
  • most of the microfilm library - contained within the desk, but the user could add or remove microfilm reels at will.

Section 7

Associative Trails

  • An associative trail = a way to create a new "linear" sequence of microfilm frames across any arbitrary sequence of microfilm frames by creating a chained sequence of links.
  • the Turkish bow example
  • Bush's notion of associative trails has generally not been implemented in the vast majority of hypertext systems.

Other functionalities

  • the trails would be persistent
  • the user could generate new information on microfilm, such as by taking photos from paper or from a touch-sensitive translucent screen.
  • a typewriter capable of voice recognition and of reading text by speech synthesis.

Section 8

  • "Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready-made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified."
  • The lawyer,the patent attorney, the physician, the chemist, the historian
  • a new profession of "trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record."
  • It might be striking to outline the instrumentalities of the future more spectacularly, rather than to stick closely to the methods and elements now known and undergoing rapid development, as has been done here.
  • "Presumably man's spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems. He has built a civilization so complex that he needs to mechanize his record more fully if he is to push his experiment to its logical conclusion and not merely become bogged down part way there by overtaxing his limited memory. His excursion may be more enjoyable if he can reacquire the privilege of forgetting the manifold things he does not need to have immediately at hand, with some assurance that he can find them again if they prove important.

The applications of science have built man a well-supplied house, and are teaching him to live healthily therein. They have enabled him to throw masses of people against another with cruel weapons. They may yet allow him truly to encompass the great record and to grow in the wisdom of race experience. He may perish in conflict before he learns to wield that record for his true good. Yet, in the application of science to the needs and desires of man, it would seem to be a singularly unfortunate stage at which to terminate the process, or to lose hope as to the outcome."

More resources


  • What roles did Vannevar Bush play in the development of modern science in the US?
  • Describe the memex and its functionalities
  • Name five of his visionary ideas that have influenced the development of technologies in use today.
  • Define the concept of associative trails
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