Vannevar Bush

The scientist with the most penetrating early vision of the machine’s potential role in helping us easily access the growing storehouse of human knowledge was Vannevar Bush. After he received a joint doctorate in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard in 1916, Bush showed a bent for military applications by inventing a submarine detection device during World War I. Then in the 1920s at MIT, he began to design and build analog computers. These early machines used voltage variances to reflect different numeric values. These machines were the precursors to today’s binary language, digital computers that use zeros and ones to represent data. In 1928, Bush was issued a pioneering patent for one of his computers and by 1935 his Rockefeller Differential Analyzer was the most powerful computer of its day.

It was quickly put to the task of solving problems associated with the development of long- distance power lines. Then, in World War II, it was turned to the task of producing artillery ballistics tables to assist the military.

Vannevar Bush with Pres. Harry Truman

At the beginning of World War II, Bush made recommendations to President Franklin Roosevelt about how to organize scientific research to keep the military abreast of new technologies. Then, during the war, Bush headed the federal government’s Office of Scientific Research and Development.

Vannevar Bush with Differential Analyzer, Aberdeen Proving Grounds WWII

Bush with his “differential analyzer” mechanical calculator at the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Grounds during World War II

It has been said that radar (from the acronym for “radio detection and ranging”) won the war, and the atomic bomb ended it. Bush and his Office had played a crucial role in both developments.

Towards the end of the war, Bush gave considerable thought to the potential application of computers to peacetime requirements and their likely evolution in the post-war era. He came to believe computers could play an important peacetime role in managing the increasing store of humanity’s accumulated knowledge.