Vannevar Bush

Vannevar Bush (1890-1974) was a leader of American science and engineering during and after World War II. He was instrumental in the development of the atomic bomb and the analogue computer, as well as an administrator of government scientific activities.

By any standard, Vannevar Bush was one of the movers of the 20th century. A prominent engineer, he rose through the ranks to become the first vice president and dean of engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In 1939 he moved to Washington, D.C. to assume the presidency of the Carnegie Institution, one of the country's most prestigious and important private foundations and sources of support for scientific research. Within a year, however, the gathering clouds of war turned his energies in other directions. With the advantage of location in Washington and drawing on acquaintanceships with the leaders of American science and engineering, Bush moved quickly into the lead mobilizing the scientific community for war.

The roots of this man who became the czar of wartime science reach deeply into the soil of New England. Bush was the descendant of a long line of sea captains who made their home in Provincetown and he always kept something of the salty independence of the sea about him. He returned frequently to Cape Cod throughout his life, and often found himself drawing upon images of the sea in talking of his work in engineering. His father had left Provincetown in the 1870s, probably to escape religious tensions and a declining economy, and taken up residence in the suburbs of Boston in the small community of Everett to be near the new Universalist Tufts College. There he studied for his degree in divinity and over the next decades became one of the area's well known and well loved pastors. And there Vannevar was born to Richard Perry and Emma Linwood Bush March 11, 1890, one of three children.

For over two decades Bush was associated with two of the country's best engineering schools. One was MIT; the earlier and, in some ways, the more formative was Tufts. While small, this Universalist school had nevertheless towards the end of the century encouraged the development of a strong and innovative engineering program under the guidance of Gardner Anthony, a master of drawing and mechanical design. Here Bush developed a lifelong romance with invention which eventually culminated in a series of pioneering analogue computers during the 1920s and 1930s. Here also he acquired that graphic mathematical approach to things which became a characteristic of his work in engineering. Not least, the profoundly ethical context in which the profession of engineering gestated at Tufts combined with the pastoral commitments of his father to shape Bush's deep belief that engineering could, in fact, be a ministry devoted to social welfare and public good. Bush graduated from Tufts in 1913 with both bachelor's and master's degrees.

Between 1913 and 1919 he worked at General Electric, taught mathematics to the women at Tufts, worked as an electrical inspector in the New York Navy Yard, earned his doctorate in electrical engineering at MIT in one year in 1916, and returned again to Tufts as a young assistant professor. Here he taught for part of his time and consulted for the rest with a small company devoted to the development of radio equipment. From these modest beginnings came the Raytheon Corporation, one of New England's largest companies and a mainstay of its defense industry. Bush was one of the company's founders in the early 1920s and maintained his connections until World War II.

In 1919, just as the academic market for engineering was turning bullish after World War I, Bush joined the faculty of MIT. Starting as an associate professor of electric power transmission, he rose rapidly through the department, bypassing the chairmanship to become in 1932 MIT's first vice president and dean of engineering under the new president, Karl Compton. During these years Bush became involved in many of the issues percolating through the country's community of engineers. They ranged over the curricula and conceptual development of electrical engineering, the relationship of the engineer and the government, the characteristics of professionalism, and the large role of the engineer in American society. In his early years at the institute, Bush cooperated with the department's dynamic chairman, Dugald Jackson, in modernizing the curriculum; assumed direction of graduate training; and coordinated the research activities of the department. By the middle 1930s, as Compton's righthand man, Bush had become not only a major figure at MIT but a respected spokesman within the country's technical community.

His inventive activity during these years revolved around the notion of mechanical analysis and the development of machine methods for the solution of mathematical problems in engineering. Between 1927 and 1943 Bush developed a series of electromechanical analogue computers which greatly facilitated the solution of complex mathematical problems. In 1936 the Rockefeller Foundation awarded a major grant to MIT which resulted in the famous Rockefeller differential analyzer of World War II. The analyzer was quickly superseded by faster digital computers, but in its time it was a significant achievement and clearly revealed the possibilities for machine computation not only in engineering but in more basic fields of science. Moreover, it embodied in a concrete way the culture of engineering in which Bush had come of age.

During the war Bush headed the vital National Defense Research Committee and its successor, the Office of Scientific Research and Development. From these organizations and the laboratories they oversaw came radar, the proximity fuse, penicillin, and, of course, the atomic bomb. Such accomplishments brought fame to Bush and enormous public respect to the country's scientists. They also provided Bush great influence in the public debates and legislative battles which followed the war and which eventually gave birth to the Atomic Energy Commission in 1947 and the National Science Foundation in 1950.

In the calmer times after the war, Bush returned to his responsibilities at the Carnegie Institution. When he retired in 1955 he went home to Cambridge. He took up duties as a member of the boards of directors of Merck and Company, AT&T, the Metals and Controls Corporation, and the MIT Corporation, becoming honorary chairman of the last in 1959. He died in 1974.

After his career took its pronounced public turn with the events of World War II, Bush became a prolific and popular author of books dealing with the nature of science and the problems of science and public policy in the period of the Cold War. Science—The Endless Frontier (1945), a report written for President F. D. Roosevelt dealing with the organization of postwar science, quickly became an influential bestseller, as did his 1949 book, Modern Arms and Free Men: A Discussion of the Role of Science in Preserving Democracy.

In many ways, Bush is the outstanding example of the expert whose role at the hub of an increasingly complex society captured the imagination of American society in the early part of the 20th century. These were years in which the figure of the engineer became not only a necessary fact of life but a value-laden symbol which presaged the contributions of science and technology to human progress. If the consequences of this turning to science and engineering, especially in the light of the nuclear predicaments which followed the war, have proved ambiguous blessings, Bush himself never lost faith. The pioneering spirit helped us conquer plains and forest, Bush wrote at the end of his life in his autobiographical Pieces of the Action. Given the chance, it would do so again.

Further Reading on Vannevar Bush

The best account of Bush's life, which contains as well an extensive bibliography of his writings, is Jerome Wiesner's short biography in volume 50 of the National Academy of Science's Biographical Memoirs. More anecdotal material can be found in Bush's own collection of autobiographical reminiscences, Pieces of the Action (1970), as well as in My Several Lives (1970), the autobiography of James Conant, his closest wartime collaborator. Bush's importance as a wartime administrator, as well as his general significance in the history of modern American science, have been treated in Daniel Kevles' interpretative survey, The Physicists—The Development of a Scientific Community.

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