Today, let's see how a 50-year-old prediction works
out. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Just before WW-II, Vannevar
Bush directed the NACA -- NASA's forerunner. Then
he took over Roosevelt's new Office of Scientific
Research and Development.
In 1945 he published an Atlantic
Monthly article. He tried to predict future
technology. How right he was in the big picture!
How wrong he was in one fundamental detail!
During the '30s, Bush had taken the analog computer
about as far as anyone could. His Rockefeller
Differential Analyzer was the grandest computer
ever built. Yet by 1945 the new digital computer
had made it obsolete. The analog/digital issue is
the only thing that mars Bush's otherwise stunning
We use the word analog for processes analogous to
the continuous ones we experience in nature. A
digital computer is more abstract. It breaks text,
or any other kind of information, into sequences of
The central problem that drove Bush's vision was
the mounting flood of information. That was only
going to get worse. How will we cope with it, he
asked. His analog answer was microphotography and
optical scanners -- all aided by the analog
computer. Bush never whispers the words "digital
Still, the computer is the lynchpin of his
prediction. He sees with utter clarity that it's
going to permeate information-handling in everyday
life. For example, he takes us to a new department
A customer hands the clerk his private punched
card. The clerk adds a price card from each item.
He lines them up in a slot. The machine
automatically corrects the inventory. It charges
the customer. It prints a receipt. Bush saw the
credit card and the bar-code coming. But he saw them
in analog form.
There's more. He says we'll encode speech. He's
vague on how we'll do that, though. Small wonder!
We're only doing that now with digital sound
storage -- more plus/minus signals.
Vannevar Bush's magical vision saw that our next
great intellectual frontier lay in managing a flood
of information. In 1945, the other futurists turned
their crystal balls on travel and power production.
Bush ends by saying,
[Man] has built a civilization so complex that
he needs to mechanize his records more fully if he
is to push his experiment to its logical conclusion
[without being bogged down by] his limited memory.
[He must] reacquire the privilege of forgetting
[all the] things he does not need ..., with some
assurance that he can find them again if they prove
The other prophets didn't see that the
twin issues of information retention and access would
dominate the end of this century. But Bush did, and
he did so with eerie clarity.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds