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The Patron Saint of Modern American Science

Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush--Engineer of the American Century, by G. Pascal Zachary is the detailed biography of a man who was at one time the American public's hope for winning a war, but half a century later has more or less been forgotten except for his contributions to one or another field of study. Vannevar Bush (1890-1974), formally trained as an electrical engineer, wore many hats in his lifetime. He was famous in academia, as an entrepreneur, and as a public servant operating at the highest levels of government. He was also a pivotal figure in promoting and shaping the nature of postwar science in America.

Endless Frontier, by G. Pascal Zachary

In modern times, Bush is most well-remembered for his academic work--specifically, he is considered one of the early pioneers of computing, having created the differential analyzer and other similar analog computers/calculating machines. His postwar essay, "As We May Think", is considered by many in the computer sciences to have inspired and laid the groundwork for information science, with Vannevar Bush therefore being revered by some as the father of information technology.

Considering the fascination our current society has for computers, it is not surprising that Vannevar Bush is remembered for his computing inventions and his inspired treatise on the future of information science. Bush, however, was so much more than just a brilliant computer expert. G. Pascal Zachary presents a view of Dr. Bush's life as a whole, focusing on his diverse professional life, and making note of Bush's accomplishments in whatever sphere (or spheres) of society he became involved.

Bush was definitely involved, to say the least, in whatever he did, never settling for half measures and always seeking to run the show. The son of a popular and socially-concerned minister, Bush identified himself primarily as an engineer. He was unusually adept with his hands, and gifted (but not brilliant) in mathematics. As such, he was always inventing something--tinkering with gadgets he fabricated in his workshop. Never satisfied by abstract work and invention for its own sake, he sought to do and create things that benefited people.

After a notable failure to convince large corporations to license one of his early inventions, Bush realized that engineering meant more than tinkering with inanimate objects. A good engineer, he thought, in seeking to best apply the principles of science, must understand the motivations and needs of people--how they organize and work together, how they conduct business, and how they conceive of and utilize inventions. With that in mind, and wanting his work to have broad social significance, Bush (like his father before him) worked with people--inventing, organizing, and managing complex organizations that would produce some of the most important technologies used in WWII.

Working as a professor at MIT, Bush did research, taught courses, and became an administrator due to his natural talents as an organizer and leader. During this time, and reflecting a new trend in academia, Bush also involved himself as a consultant in industry, both to supplement his income and to satisfy his insatiable desire to build something useful; he was always on the lookout for practical applications of technology. Bush established valuable connections with other men in industry and also men working for governmental agencies involved in research and the development of various technologies. In addition to progressing up the ranks as a university administrator (becoming the vice-president of MIT in 1932), Bush gained valuable experience as a major partner in several business ventures. He eventually left MIT to become the president of the very prestigious and influential Carnegie Institute of Washington, one of the premier patrons of science in America at the time. He also became actively involved in government, having been assigned to various governmental advisory committees on technology-related issues.

Bush's broad technical expertise combined with his leadership qualities, political shrewdness, inventiveness, and irreverence for established boundaries and protocol (especially when they impeded a man's ability to achieve success) put him in a unique position. With United States involvement in the WWII seeming more and more likely, Bush badly wanted to contribute to the war preparation effort. He realized that the new war would be high tech--won in the laboratories as well as on the battlefields. Bush observed that the military at the time was vastly disorganized and mostly indifferent or incapable of producing the major technological innovations that would be necessary to win the war. Likewise, the academic and industrial spheres were not in a position where they could easily cooperate and contribute to the war preparation effort.

Although it was not easy to overcome institutional prejudices, Bush managed to unify academic, industrial, and military interests toward the common goal of improving the nation's defenses. Under the direct authority of President Roosevelt, Bush created and became the head of the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) which later became part of the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), which Bush also headed. For the first time in history, civilian scientists had a direct role in developing new technologies for the military and even in suggesting military strategy. Bush, a civilian expert, would become the President's most valued scientific advisor, and his OSRD would invent crucial wartime technologies. Most notably, Bush was the administrative head of the super-secretive Manhattan Project, especially in its early research stages. He was also an advisor to the President on the use of the atomic bomb.

After the war, Bush was concerned about the future of the scientific establishment. He strongly urged the federal government to continue its support of both military and basic research. He made his case eloquently, linking civilian and military concerns, in a report entitled "Science: The Endless Frontier" which captured the imagination of the public and of the policy makers in Washington. Bush utilized the frontier metaphor to create a positive and striking image of the American scientist as a bold pioneer and explorer of the unknown. From a more pragmatic perspective, Bush saw that academia, industry, and the military worked so well interdependently during the war. Bush knew that a postwar government withdrawal from science would cripple scientific research and the nation's technological (and therefore military and economic) might. Furthermore, Bush wanted to ensure that scientific expertise would be utilized to improve the quality of governmental decision-making. The thrust of his essay was his proposal for a National Research Foundation, which would eventually come into being as the National Science Foundation. Essentially, Bush was outlining a role for technoscience in the emerging postwar society.

Vannevar Bush's visionary policies were instrumental in shaping postwar science as being informed by academic, political, military, and business interests.

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Last updated on October 16th, 2001
Lawrence Eng