January 30, 2005

Science The Endless Frontier

Minister's son Vannevar (rhymes with 'receiver') Bush (1890 - 1974) had an interesting life, and has been immortalized with his own word. He was a mathematician and electrical engineer, and his laboratory created the best analog computer, a kind of supercomputer of the 30s and 40s, before the digital age. As the Dean of Engineering at MIT, VB thought it was important to defend scientists and engineers against the charge that the Great Depression was the fault of technocrats, and started to become involved in politics. He is perhaps best known for a modernist proposal he wrote in 1938 for FDR-- 'Science, The Endless Frontier', a plan for government support of university research, and helped create the National Science Foundation to cement the ties between science, industry and the military. Bush (who as far as I now is not related to Prescott Sheldon, GHW or GW Bush) headed the Office of Scientific Research and Development which controlled the Manhatttan project in WWII. VB was thinking about the potential of microfilm and wrote in Life magazine in 1945, "Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified." This article was read by Ted Nelson and Douglas Engelbart, and inspired them to write the concepts that later became hypertext and formed the basis of the world wide web. In 1949 Bush wrote a book called 'Modern Arms and Free Men' where he argued that the militarization of American science would harm the economy.

There are some who say that VB was the head of a powerful group known as the 'Majestic 12' who were appointed by Dwight Eisenhower to investigate and cover up the alien crash site in Roswell, New Mexico.

Bush became known for his habit of overestimating technical challenges-- for instance he predicted that a nuclear weapon could never be made small enough to fit in the nose of a missile. Hence his eponym:

vannevar, n.
A bogus technological prediction or a foredoomed engineering concept, esp. one that fails by implicitly assuming that technologies develop linearly, incrementally, and in isolation from one another when in fact the learning curve tends to be highly nonlinear, revolutions are common, and competition is the rule. The prototype was Vannevar Bush's prediction of ‘electronic brains’ the size of the Empire State Building with a Niagara-Falls-equivalent cooling system for their tubes and relays, a prediction made at a time when the semiconductor effect had already been demonstrated. Other famous vannevars have included magnetic-bubble memory, LISP machines, videotex, and a paper from the late 1970s that computed a purported ultimate limit on areal density for ICs that was in fact less than the routine densities of 5 years later.


At January 30, 2005 3:26 PM , Blogger Matt_J said...

I hope one day myself to be the head of a powerful group known as the Majestic Twelve. We will confine ourselves to the realm of music.

At January 31, 2005 5:27 PM , Blogger Tim said...

Was he the one who said there would be a need for 1 or at most 2 computers in the entire world?

At January 31, 2005 5:31 PM , Blogger Tim said...

No, according to http://www.gianace.com/dispensa/lightside/lightside.htm

it was:
"I believe that there is a market for perhaps five computers in the entire world."
- Thomas Watson, President of IBM, 1943


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