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EN | Personajes ilustres – Bush

Bush, Vannevar (1890 - 1974)

Vannevar Bush was born on 11 March 1890. He was of a sickly constitution, and as a boy spent long periods confined into bed. Despite this, he had strong character and was very self-assured.

Agood student, it was not long before he began to excel in mathematics. After finishing school, he received a scholarship to attend Tufts College to study engineering. He paid the remaining enrolment fee by working as a tutor and assistant in the mathematics department. He earned an MS degree in the time as it usually takes to get a BS degree. He made his first inventions while still at university. After graduating from university, he worked for General Electric testing electrical equipment, where he was dismissed after a fire at his plant.

In 1915, after a year as a teacher, he enrolled at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), where he earned his doctorate in under a year. He then returned to Tufts College as assistant professor.

During the First World War, he took an interest in submarine detection systems and developed a method based on the use of magnetic fields. In 1917 Vannevar travelled to Washington to present his idea to the director of the National Research Council, whose main concern at that time was to enhance weapons systems. The director liked the idea, and Bush convinced him to let him head the research team. Although the device worked well in tests, the Navy officials in charge of the project, who did not look kindly upon Bush, managed to prevent it from being used on any warship. Vannevar learned that, besides being a good researcher, he also had to be a good politician.

After the war, he returned to MIT to work on computer development in 1919. In 1927, he developed his first analog machine that solved simple equations. Bush pursued his ideas and ended up developing the differential analyser in 1930. The differential analyser was a mechanical predecessor of future analog computers for solving differential equations. Around that time, he began to devise machines that would automate human thinking. He had the idea of building a machine to organize the FBI’s entire photographic fingerprints archive using microfilms. The machine was to be able to compare 1000 fingerprints per minute. Although the FBI decided against its construction, Vannevar started working on the project on his own initiative. He managed to build a machine that was compatible with generally all microfilm types. He called the machine Rapid Selector. Users were able to quickly select a document, which they projected on a screen. Although the Rapid Selector had many technical hitches, it served as useful experience for Bush to mature his ideas on information processing machines.

In 1932 he was Vice President of MIT and Dean of the School of Engineering. After his appointment as President of of the Carnegie Institution, he worked as advisor to President Roosevelt for military research during the Second World War, participating in the Manhattan Project, which was to lead to the manufacture of the atomic bomb. He advised Roosevelt to set up the National Defense Research Council (NDRC), of which was the first chairman.

At the end of the war in 1945, he published an article entitled As we may think in the Atlantic Monthly. The article describes a theoretical machine called Memex (MEMory EXtender), which was clearly influenced by the Rapid Selector. Memex was to be a microfilm-based device. The device was to have a screen onto which microfilms were projected, a keyboard for users to select microfilms and a storage mechanism. The innovation was that Memex was to have a human-like memory and a concepts association mechanism. This would allow the machine to establish links between different documents enabling users to automatically move between related microfilms. Bush referred to this mechanism as associative trail. This article was the groundwork for Ted Nelson’s Project Xanadu developed twenty years later. Nelson coined the term hypertext for associative trail. The system was never built. In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee retrieved the hypertext concept, converting it, with the development of the World Wide Web, into one of the core concepts of the Internet.

Vannevar Bush was Honorary President of MIT from 1959 to 1971. He received the National Medal of Science in 1964 and honorary doctorates from several universities, including Johns Hopkins, Yale, Columbia, Princeton, Cambridge and Trinity College.

He died on 10 June 1974.