Foreseeing the Future: The legacy of Vannevar Bush

In 1945 a seminal article appeared in The Atlantic Monthly. Titled, “As We May Think,” the article’s author, Vannevar Bush (1890–1974), proposed a new mechanical machine to help scholars and decision makers make sense of the growing mountains of information being published in to the world. This article presaged the idea of the Internet and the World Wide Web and was directly influential on the fathers of the hypertext and the Internet as we know it today. Ted Nelson, who coined the term “hypertext” in 1967, describes Bush’s article as describing the principles of it.

Bush has been hailed as the conceptual creator of “hypertext,” laying out the notion of the modern link 50 years before the web became a public phenomenon.

Bush was a distinguished scientist and a scholar. He served as dean of the school of engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington D.C. and was the President’s top advisor during World War II. He was chairman of the President’s National Defense Research Committee (1940) Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development (1941–1947), Chairman of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (1939–1941), founder of the National Science Foundation and was a central figure in the development of nuclear fission and the Manhattan Project.

But he was also an inventor and invented several types of machines—the profile tracer, the justifying typewriter and the differential analyzer which was used in World War II to calculate ballistics table. As early as the 1930s he was concerned about the glut of information coming out of academia and the government and wanted to improve the way people accessed, stored and communicated information. He recognized the limitations in how that information was accessed. In this landmark article he describes a machine, the memex, which would help someone find information based in association and context rather than strict categorical indexing. “A memex is a device in which an individual stores 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.”1

The article goes on to describe the physical desk as having a set of translucent screens, keyboard, buttons and levers. The desk would also serve its user as a large storage device.

It is because of this article that Bush has been hailed as the conceptual creator of “hypertext”. The article is at its most innovative and interesting in the description of how the memex device was to work for the reader.

The memex “affords an immediate step, however, to associative indexing, the basic idea of which is a provision whereby any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another. This is the essential feature of the memex. The process of tying two items together is the important thing.2

This description, some 30 years before the invention of the personal computer and 50 years before the web became a public phenomenon, lays out the notion of the modern link.

George P. Landow, author of Hypertext: the convergence of contemporary critical theory and technology says of Bush, “Bush’s idea of the memex, to which he occasionally turned his attention for three decades, directly influenced Ted Nelson, Douglas Englebart Andreis Van Dam and other pioneers in computer hypertext. […] In “As We May Think” and “Memex Revisited” Bush proposed the notion of blocks of text joined by links and he also introduced the terms links, linkages, trails and web to describe his conception of textuality. Bush’s description of the memex contains several other seminal, even radical, conceptions of textuality.”3

Some of the ideas, the concept of associative indexing, trails and sets of trails are prescient to the modern topical blog. A single author connects documents that are associated by some common theme, annotated with commentary and available for others to read long after the original associations are made.

Bush described the memex reader reading documents and tying them together with links. “Thus he goes, building a trail of many items. Occasionally he inserts a comment of his own, either linking it to the main trail or joining it by a side trail to a particular item. […] He inserts a page of longhand analysis of his own. Thus he builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him.”4

Bush goes on to describe the sharing of trails between people and the creation of a “new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of common record. The inheritance from the master becomes not only his additions to the world’s record, but for his disciples the entire scaffolding by which they were erected.”5

The memex and its description have long been hailed as inspiration for the creators of hypertext and even the web. However, the importance of his legacy reaches far beyond this in the description of information organization and associative context. We are only now beginning to develop software and interactive spaces that allow a reader’s associative ability to be more automated and made available to others across the Internet. Through the addition of linking and the creation of trails, as well as personal commentary and annotation, the reader becomes author as well. The modern weblog starts to walk down the path Bush described. Wiki, the software that allows one person to aggregate and publish information and then allows others to modify and add and change the original information is also akin to his vision as well. Bush was as concerned with people authoring content as well as managing associations around existing content, and the fluid nature of the Wiki, the sharing of data and the sharing of the responsibility for the data trails, is a direct descendant of his ideas.

Theodor Nelson, in his essay “As We Will Think” (1972—republished as a chapter in From Memex to Hypertext: Vannevar Bush and the Mind’s Machine in 1992), says that the “famous call for the memex has been generally misinterpreted for it has little to do with information retrieval as prosecuted today. Bush rejected indexing and discussed instead new forms of interwoven documents.”6

Bush’s vision for how we handle and interact with information took a step towards reality with the creation of hypertext and the basic linked web, but those of us working with information and creating information spaces and connections would do well to take another look at his vision and be as inspired to create new and innovative ways to gather and share information as other have been in the past.

For more information:

Photos of Vannevar Bush

Erin Malone is currently a Product Design Director at AOL in the Web Properties division. She has been a practicing interaction, interface and information designer since 1993. She can be reached at .

Posted in Forerunners, Process and Methods | 2 Comments »

2 Comments

  • jjg

    June 18, 2002 at 12:45 pm

    The irony of an article about the concept of hypertext that relies upon endnotes (and URLs that don’t link anywhere!) is too much for my small brain to bear.

  • erin

    June 18, 2002 at 1:40 pm

    Jesse – you are so right. The lack of links is ironic. I will be linking everything up later today.

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