Childhood & Early Life
Vannevar Bush was born on March 11, 1890, in Everett, Massachusetts, to Perry Bush, a Universalist minister and his wife, Emma Linwood Paine. He had two sisters, Edith and Reba. He grew up in a middle-class neighbourhood in Chelsea, Massachusetts.
Bush studied at ‘Chelsea High School,’ and graduated in 1909. He accredited his resolve to the influence of his grandfather who was a whaling captain.
Bush was a brilliant student, especially in mathematics and physics. During growing-up years, he had major health issues and used to remain ill for long periods. He joined ‘Tufts University,’ Medford, Massachusetts, wherein he was the class president and also managed the football team. He was a member of the ‘Alpha Tau Omega’ fraternity. He graduated in 1913 with both B.S. and M.S. in mathematics. He invented and patented a device called ‘Profile tracer,’ for his M.S. thesis. The device was a land survey machine and looked like a lawn-mower.
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Bush worked briefly at ‘General Electric’ (GE) at Schenectady, New York, where his job required ensuring the safety of the equipment. He was later dismissed when a fire broke in his department. In October 1914, he was back at ‘Tufts College’ where he taught mathematics.
Bush joined Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s electrical engineering program and received his doctorate jointly from ‘MIT’ and ‘Harvard’ in 1916. He continued teaching at Tufts.
When WWI began, Bush worked with the ‘National Research Council’ to design an electro-magnetic device to locate submarines. His design was, however, not accepted, probably because of his lack of marketing knowledge and also the fact that it worked only from a wooden ship and failed when used in a metal Destroyer.
In 1919, Bush joined as an associate professor in MIT’s department of electrical engineering. In 1922, he jointly wrote an engineering text-book with fellow-professor Timbie. He simultaneously invented some devices for AMRAD (American Radio & Research Corporation, which proved profitable.
In 1923, Bush became a professor and head of graduate studies and electrical engineering research department. In 1932, he became the first Vice-President of MIT and Dean of the ‘MIT School of Engineering.’ He was also a consultant for the AMRAD, wherein he helped the development of a thermostat, which led him to become an entrepreneur; he co-founded a small company that later grew into ‘Texas Instruments.’
Bush was involved in setting up several firms. He was one of the directors of a company that marketed a new invention for radios. The business later developed into ‘Raytheon,’ one of the largest electronics and defense products corporations of New England.
In 1925, with encouragement from Bush, one of his students, Herbert Stewart, worked on a device for solving differential equations. However, the device had its limitations. In 1927, Bush and his students developed an analog computer, ‘Differential Analyzer,’ which could solve differential equations with up to 18 independent variables. This invention won him ‘Louis E. Levy Medal’ of the Franklin Institute (1928).
The ‘Differential Analyzer’ was used for many engineering problems. It became successful by 1931 and was being used in various laboratories. Bush worked toward building an automatic machine that would (in addition to solving mathematical equations) also store information base. He made use of micro-films to store and recover information. He called it ‘rapid selector,’ but it had technical problems.
Bush was very keen on working with industry to convert theoretical knowledge into actual application/use. He realized the significance of patent rights of inventions and the possibility of turning them into a new industry. In 1934, he became a member of the ‘National Academy of Sciences.’
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Bush left MIT in 1938, and joined the ‘Carnegie Institution of Washington’ (CIW). Now he could influence the course of scientific research (in the US) and advise the government informally on scientific matters.
In the view of the impending war, Bush, along with some other scientists, felt the necessity to bring scientists, industry, military, and the government together. In June 1940, Bush made a suggestion to President Roosevelt to form such a committee. Subsequently, the ‘National Defense Research Committee (NDRC)’ was formed with Bush as Chairman. Funded by President’s emergency fund, it faced shortage of money.
In the mid-1941, the ‘Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD)’ was set up and NDRC was incorporated in it. Bush was appointed director of OSRD. Through OSRD research, several innovations useful for war were developed, including microwave-based radar system, the proximity fuse/fuze; anti-submarine devices like underwater sonar, mine detectors, flame-throwers, torpedoes, chemical warfare, including drugs for malaria, DDT to kill insects, plasma transfusion, and many secret devises for the OSS (precursor of CIA).
The OSRD also functioned as a liaison between the Allies. During WWII, more than 6000 civilian scientists were working for the OSRD, and by the end of war, its annual budget, too, had become huge.
Bush played a major role in initiating the ‘Manhattan Project’ – the initiative for developing an atomic bomb. Though the nuclear development was later given to ‘Army Corps of Engineers,’ but Bush, along with other scientists, supervised the project.
After the war, Bush conceptualized a permanent research foundation for scientific research. President Roosevelt’s query about how the technologies developed during World War II could be used in peacetime, resulted in Bush’s report, ‘Science, the Endless Frontier.’ This led to the formation of the ‘National Science Foundation’ (1950).
Based on his earlier research about analog computer and hypothetical device ‘memex,’ Bush published an article, ‘As We May Think,’ (1945), in the ‘Atlantic Monthly,’ which became a milestone article for him. Computer scientists Douglas Engelbart and Ted Nelson claimed to have driven inspiration from this article.
Post war, Bush continued to work for the NACA till 1948 and for the CIW till 1955. He continued as director of several companies. He received numerous awards and honors, including AIEE’s ‘Edison Medal’ (1943), ‘Medal of Merit’ (1948), ‘National Medal of Science’ (1963), ‘Atomic Pioneers Award’ (1970), and many more. He was made a ‘Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire Officer’ in 1948.