Distillations magazine

Unexpected Stories from Science’s Past
July 21, 2018 People & Politics

The Rise and Fall of Vannevar Bush

One war made him the most powerful man in science; the war that followed took that power away.


Vannevar Bush (1890–1974), one of the great overachievers of the 20th century, combined the skills of an engineer, a mathematician, and a scientist with the organizational abilities of a successful military leader or company president.

In 1931, while a professor at MIT, he created the first analog computer that could reliably solve differential equations with up to 18 variables. The machine was built from electrical and mechanical components (including motors, shafts, and gears) that filled a large room. Solving a complicated problem could take a few days of setup of the machinery before the computer would groan and clank its way to a solution to real-world problems. Edith Clarke, the first and for a long time the only female electrical engineer at General Electric Company, used the machine to analyze electrical power systems.

The U.S. Army took notice of Bush’s work. A successor to his initial machine was used to track and trace the path of artillery shells. The navy came calling afterward and asked Bush to build a machine to break coded radio and telegraph messages sent by Japanese officers and diplomats.

As tensions rose in Europe in the late 1930s, Bush drew on his experiences with academia, the military, and industry to plan for a research organization that pooled the groups’ resources. Bush believed the United States was bound to get dragged into Europe’s troubles sooner or later. He wanted better weapons, and he wanted them faster. In June 1940, after the Germans invaded France, Bush met with President Franklin Roosevelt and, according to Bush biographer G. Pascal Zachary, presented the president with a single piece of paper containing a plan for coordinating the country’s military research. Within 15 minutes Roosevelt had approved the plan. The result was the National Defense Research Committee, which contracted with universities and industry for research. That organization was soon subsumed within the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), which Bush directed, making him the country’s most influential man of science.

In August 1940 British scientists brought a powerful radar transmitter that worked at the microwave level to the United States. Britain, in the midst of war, lacked the resources to develop the invention and so handed it over to the Americans. Bush used his authority to create a laboratory devoted to radar research. The lab’s results gave the Allies a decided advantage when hunting German submarines in the Atlantic, helping destroy the German blockade of Britain.

Toward the end of the war Bush’s OSRD had a budget of $3 million a week to spend on its 6,000 researchers. Their work included everything from antibiotic research, to better explosives, to blood substitutes. By 1944 Bush was sufficiently well known to appear on the cover of Time. After all, it was clear to everyone that the secret and not-so-secret projects scientists were cooking up in their labs would play a major role in winning the war. But what finished the war was the most secret of all of Bush’s projects.

As late as 1940 Bush dismissed the idea of an atomic bomb, given that no one had any real idea of how to build one. But Bush, who liked to be in charge, soon decided whatever fission work was being done should be done under his purview. By mid-1941 he was sufficiently convinced by both the science and the risks of doing nothing to throw himself into the atom bomb project. He went to President Roosevelt with his fears and hopes and walked away with the promise of enough resources to build a bomb, whatever it took.

Even before the bomb was dropped on Japan, Bush foresaw the perils of a nuclear-arms race. What one country could do, others could eventually do as well. And a World War III fought with nuclear weapons would be devastating beyond comprehension. To forestall such a danger Bush pushed for an international organization that would freely offer knowledge on how to create energy from atoms but also have the power to inspect nuclear facilities anywhere in the world. Ultimately, he wanted a world without atomic bombs. While the president and the military were focused on finishing a war, Bush was thinking in terms of maintaining peace in a nuclear world. He wrote a memo to the president about his ideas, but Roosevelt never saw it.

Bush’s foresight also extended to postwar science. He grew up in a world where government was not a significant funder of science. World War II changed that, but after the war the government would have little reason to continue shoving money at scientists unless it could be convinced otherwise. To that end Bush commissioned a report titled “Science, the Endless Frontier.” He wrote the introductory essay, which linked the doing of science, especially research, to the country’s economic well-being and security. That essay has influenced science policy to this day.

But Bush’s power waned after the war. Scientists had devoted themselves to war work, but now they wanted to return to their own institutions and their own research priorities as the OSRD wound down. Bush never developed a productive relationship with President Harry Truman and was less attuned to the new Cold War politics: he was horrified when fears of Communist infiltration led to persecution of Robert Oppenheimer and other scientists. And Bush’s ideas to link research, industry, and government to create a technocracy of expertise foundered: in peacetime politicians were not as willing to be left out of decision making. Finally, Bush’s opposition to the building of a hydrogen bomb pushed him further to the margins.

Bush gradually drifted into the backwaters of science and technology. The rise of digital computing passed him by: an analog man to the end, he underrated the possibilities of digital technology. He did, however, make one contribution to the field. His “memex”—an idea for a machine that could store and connect information and thus work as an artificial aid to memory—later inspired others to create a version in digital form: hypertext. Wikipedia entries, with their hyperlinks taking readers ever deeper and wider, would likely have pleased Bush despite their digital form.

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