Today, Moses at the riverbank. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Vannevar Bush was America's
leading counselor on technology and science during
and after WW-II. Born in 1890, he studied
electrical engineering and mathematics at Tufts
University and MIT.
In 1938, Bush became chairman of the National
Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which
eventually became NASA. Two years later he was
appointed Chairman of the President's National
Defense Research Committee. Then he became Director
of the Office of Scientific Research and
Development. After the war, he held all kinds of
high administrative posts in education and
government. In 1950, he founded the National
Near the end of WW-II, Bush wrote an Atlantic Monthly article
predicting that the next great leap of technology
would be information storage and retrieval.
Everyone else was still predicting fast cars,
rocket transportation, and personal helicopters. He
foresaw credit cards, bar codes, even the Internet.
But he saw it all in analog form. He missed the digital revolution.
His biographer, G. Pascal Zachary, likens Vannevar
Bush to Benjamin Franklin. Like Franklin, he was
enormously creative, he had an astonishing ability
to pick up the right threads of technological
change, and he used politics as means for making
technology serve us in the best possible way. He
was bent on making technology reshape and improve
the texture of human life.
Yet, by the late 1950s, the world had shifted under
Bush's feet. He was sharply critical of our crash
program to reach the moon. That may seem
shortsighted, but, after we won our race to the
moon, we all but ignored our space program for a
Bush also ran aground on the red scares and purges
of the fifties. At first, he gave them his
conservative approval. During the war, he'd felt
that Einstein leaned too far to the left. He joined
in cutting Einstein off from the atom bomb's
But then, Bush's friend J. Robert Oppenheimer came
under attack for having opposed development of the
hydrogen bomb -- an opposition that Bush shared.
Bush knew Oppenheimer very well, and, at that
point, he finally understood that the world had
After that, Bush slipped into despondency, and his
light faded. Zachary writes, "The Oppenheimer
affair certainly highlighted the gulf between him
and the national-security elite." He says that Bush
became a "hero without a cause" who, in his late
years, "seemed to be against everything."
We saw vast change in the late fifties. And we
began severing ties with the technologies (as well
as the politics) that'd shaped the Modern world of
the early twentieth century. Vannevar Bush was the
exemplar of America's Modern age, but he saw the
changes coming. And all that change was a river he
could not cross. The world that you and I live in
today was one he could only witness, with a kind of
sinking despair, from the other side.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Z. G. Pascal, Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush,
Engineer of the American Century. New York: Free
V. Bush, As We May Think. The Atlantic
Monthly, Vol. 176, No. 1, July 1945, pp.
L. Owens, Vannevar Bush and the Differential
Analyzer: The Text and Context of an Early
Computer, Technology and Culture, Vol. 27,
No. 1, January 1986, pp. 63-95.
(As a sidebar to this, I only recently learned that
bush pronounced his first name as
VanEEVur, not as VANuhvar.)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.