Vannevar Bush

Contrariwise, if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.
Lewis Carroll

Vannevar Bush on the cover of Life magazine, September, 1945
Vannevar Bush on the cover of Life magazine, September 1945

Vannevar Bush (1890-1974) was an American engineer, policymaker, and science administrator, known primarily for his work on analog computing and his political role in the development of the atomic bomb. In 1945, in the article, As We May Think (the paper was originally written in 1939, but was published in the July 1945 issue of the magazine The Atlantic Monthly) Bush proposed a theoretical proto-hypertext system (an electromechanical device, called memex), which has influenced the development of subsequent hypertext and intellect augmenting computer systems.

Bush was inspired by perceptions of need that are, similar to those that inspired Paul Otlet, Herbert Wells, and Emanuel Goldberg. Following the expansion of scientific activity, he had come to believe that our methods for transmitting and reviewing the results of the research were no longer adequate. As the scientific specialization needed for progress increases, the investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers—conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear. It seemed to him that publication has been extended beyond our present ability to make real use of the record.
In his view, as an engineer and scientist, the answer was to be found in harnessing technology to provide a sophisticated mechanical solution to the problem. Bush’s idea should be viewed from the historical perspective of microfilm technology developed prior to 1945, as Bush was involved in the development of this technology and directed the creation of a photoelectronic microfilm rapid selector at MIT during 1938-1940.

Extrapolating from the technology of his time, Bush described a new kind of device which was a sort of mechanized file and library. He called it a “memex” (from “memory extender”):
A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.
It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers. Otherwise, it looks like an ordinary desk
(see the lower illustration from the September 1945, issue of Life magazine).

Original illustration of the Memex from the Life reprint of "As We May Think"
Original illustration of the Memex from the Life reprint of “As We May Think”

All of the documents used in the memex would be in the form of microfilm copy acquired as such or, in the case of personal records, transformed to microfilm by the machine itself. Memex would also employ new retrieval techniques based on a new kind of associative indexing the basic idea of which is a provision whereby any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another to create personal “trails” through linked documents. The new procedures, that Bush anticipated facilitating information storage and retrieval would lead to the development of wholly new forms of encyclopedia.

The most important mechanism, conceived by Bush and considered as closed to the modern hypertext systems is the associative trail. It would be a way to create a new linear sequence of microfilm frames across any arbitrary sequence of microfilm frames by creating a chained sequence of links in the way just described, along with personal comments and side trails.
The essential feature of the memex [is] the process of tying two items together… When the user is building a trail, he names it in his code book, and taps it out on his keyboard. Before him are the two items to be joined, projected onto adjacent viewing positions. At the bottom of each, there are a number of blank code spaces, and a pointer is set to indicate one of these on each item. The user taps a single key, and the items are permanently joined… Thereafter, at any time, when one of these items is in view, the other can be instantly recalled merely by tapping a button below the corresponding code space.

The article of Bush has not described any automatic search, nor any universal metadata scheme such as a standard library classification or a hypertext element set. Instead, when the user made an entry, such as a new or annotated manuscript, or image, he was expected to index and describe it in his personal code book. Later on, by consulting his code book, the user could retrace annotated and generated entries.

In 1965 Bush took part in the project INTREX of MIT, for developing technology for the mechanization of the processing of information for library use. In his 1967 essay titled “Memex Revisited”, he pointed out that the development of the digital computer, the transistor, the video, and other similar devices had heightened the feasibility of such mechanization, but costs would delay its achievements. He was right again.

Ted Nelson, who later did pioneering work with the first practical hypertext system and coined the term “hypertext” in the 1960s, credited Bush as his main influence. Others, such as Licklider and Douglas Engelbart have also paid homage to Bush. The modern Internet, the development and proliferation of high-density storage media, and the critical dependence of computer users on searching are resounding testimonies to Vannevar Bush’s foresight.