Pioneers @  

Vannevar Bush

"The world has arrived at an age of cheap complex devices of great reliability, and something is bound to come of it. "

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  Vannevar Bush (1890 - 1974)

While George Stibitz and Konrad Zuse were trying to develop the circuitry that would eventually lead to the invention of the digital computer, Vannevar Bush was working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - but he was heading in a different direction.

Bush was attempting to re-invent Charles Babbage's Difference Engine.

He did it, too. At a time when engineers were beginning to look towards electrical circuits for more efficient processing of much more complex operations, Bush managed to produce a calculating machine that used electricity only to turn the shafts, which turned the cranks, which clanked away clumsily to solve differential equations - all only after the various gear ratios had been calculated and manually calibrated.

Bush's ‘continuous integraph’, later called the Differential Analyser, was still a significant development in the progress towards an analogue computer, influencing development of analogue machines around the world.

The Differential Analyser itself was fascinating, an analogue device that calculated using all ten digits of the decimal system - rather than the two digit binary system later devised by Bush's student, Claude Shannon - this thing ran the entire length of a large room.

Measuring movement and distance, and calculating according to these measurements, this device used shaft movement to represent variables, gears to multiply and divide, and differential gears to add and subtract. It could calculate no less than 18 independent variables, and integration was achieved via a sharply-edged wheel spinning at variable radius on a round rotating table.

This thing was massive, this thing was complex, this thing was built at the hands of men who loved machines. True, it was cumbersome, clumsy, and built at a time when mechanical machines were steadily giving way to electromechanical devices, but to anyone with a spark of poetry in their soul, this was one awe-inspiringly beautiful machine!

Unfortunately, when you get right down to it, the Differential Analyser really only had one lasting claim to its position as a predecessor to the modern computer - it was while working on its oily innards that Claude Shannon devised his boolean algebra and electrical circuitry theories that eventually condemned the Differential Analyser to obsolescence.

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Bush himself went on to invent the Rapid Selector, a microfilm storage and information retrieval device that he expanded - in theory, anyway - with his plans for the ‘Memex’ machine, a futuristic device that foreshadowed the modern computer and hypertext linking.

Vannevar Bush's first public exposition of his vision for the future, 'As We May Think', was published by the Atlantic Monthly in 1945. While some (actually, most) of his grandiose dreams have yet to spring into existence, it was this address - especially his foreshadowing of hypertext - that gave Bush his place as a pioneer of the Internet.

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In 1940, Bush became Chairman of the National Defense Research Committee. By 1941 he was appointed Director of the new Office of Scientific Research and Development, established to co-ordinate weapons research and advise on scientific research and development.

Between 1941 and 1945, Bush oversaw a number of new scientific developments, including the refinement of radar, mass production of penicillin, and the creation of the first atomic bomb.

While working with the Office of Scientific Research and Development, Bush maintained his presidency of the Carnegie Institute (which actually paid his wages while he was working with the OSRD - nice lurk if you can get it), a position he held from 1935 - 1955.

Bush returned to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1955, where he stayed until retirement in 1971.

Charles Babbage
Claude Shannon