Vannevar Bush, science, the world’s brain and inventing the web

This was first published in the July edition of Popular Science UK. Subscribe to read August’s piece on health data. See their new rates for educational subs (for .sch or .ac email addresses).


The web’s origin story generally goes something like this: Tim Berners-Lee, a British scientist working at CERN in the late 1990s, wanted to find a way to deal with increasing desire to share information across the intricate global network of scientists working on the project, and found a way to connect an earlier idea of his, for a hypertext database system, to the Internet.

There’s a lovely – though somewhat Romanticised – story of Berners-Lee being inspired the culture of the CERN canteen: All these clever people from all the world and different disciplines sitting together, exchanging their cleverness, the web was just a way of sharing that experience with everyone.

A bit of science funding PR often gets spun out of this. All that money on physics research at CERN? Don’t worry, because, aside from the fact that studying the universe is a fine aim for humanity in itself, we got the web out of it. OK. But we could have got the web from lots of scientists being brought together on another ambitious problem. And that’s where an earlier character in this origin story comes in: Vannevar Bush.

Bush is often credited in the history of the web in terms of his influence on the idea of hypertext via something called the Memex (more on this later). But he played a key role in creating the social context that CERN emerged from too, and I think he should get some of the credit for that too.

Vannevar Bush was an American engineer, inventor, public intellectual and, perhaps most importantly, administrator of mid 20th century America. Born in 1890, after studying science at university he worked for General Electric for a few years before moving to MIT to do a PhD in electrical engineering. Work in industry, academia and the military followed, and he eventually became Vice President and Dean of engineering at MIT in 1938.

He’d been aware of a lack of connection between science and the military during World War One so, as the US entered World War Two, worked hard to set up official federal systems for more strategic coordination of scientific energies. He became director of the newly established Office of Scientific Research and Development in 1941, which included the initiation and administration of the Manhattan Project. The Manhattan Project is significant not just in terms of the outcome of the Atomic bomb, but the way it brought together a large number of scientists from around the world and a range of subjects, to work on a strategic goal with an enormous budget, left a mark on the way we subsequently organised science.

The Manhattan Project wasn’t unprecedented, but it was a step in a set of changes to the way we organised science which led up to much more peace-time orientated projects such as CERN. The Manhattan Project did not cause some singular radical change in the development of science, but arguably it did accelerate shifts that were already taking place. Big Science is not simply a 20th century phenomenon any more than “scientists” only arrived in 1833 when William Whewell coined that term. Darwin’s correspondence (which you can read if you fancy getting lost down the rabbit hole of Victorian natural history) shows the degrees to which even seemingly “gentleman” individual science was highlight networked. Astronomy also offers case studies of multi-national networks of astronomers utilising large telescopes and in pay of industry and military stretching centuries. There’s a reason Brecht uses an astronomer to talk about the morality of 20th century science in his play A Life of Galileo. But there was something about the particular scale of the Manhattan Project and subsequent work. A physicist in early 20th C would know the handful of experts in their field, working directly with a few and corresponding with others, easily catching up with developments. In the early 21st, and I have a physicist friend who uses Ctrl Alt F to locate his name on papers.

Not everyone loved this change. The term Big Science was popularised by Alvin Weinberg, writing in the journal Science in 1961, complaining it was somewhat of a corruption of what science should and can be for society: “We build our monuments in the name of scientific truth, they built theirs in the name of religious truth; we use our Big Science to add to our country’s prestige, they used their churches for their cities’ prestige” he mourned.

That “Memex” thing is also part of the tensions surrounding this shift in how we made and connected expertise. Writing in The Atlantic in 1945, Bush reflected on the sheer quantity of information he came across on any day, and the diversity of ways in which this information might link to one another. He felt the “growing mountain of research” quite acutely, and felt quite bogged down by all the multitude of findings of various specialised branches of research:

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. Yet specialization becomes increasingly necessary for progress, and the effort to bridge between disciplines is correspondingly superficial.

This is something many will identify with today. But it’s no surprise that someone coming out of Manhattan Project strategy felt it so acutely. As a way of dealing with this, Bush imagined a machine which allowed for the non-linear filing and retrieval of information. This is Bush’s idea:

[the reader] finds an interesting but sketchy article, leaves it projected. Next, in a history, he finds another pertinent item, and ties the two together. Thus he goes, building a trail of many items. Occasionally he inserts a comment of his own, either linking it into the main trail or joining it by a side trail to a particular item. When it becomes evident that the elastic properties of available materials had a great deal to do with the bow, he branches off on a side trail which takes him through textbooks on elasticity and tables of physical constants. 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. And his trails do not fade.

Recognise it? Ted Nelson, who coined the term hypertext, and the Wikimedia Foundation both credit this idea. HG Wells had a similar idea with the “World Brain” in the late 1930s, though you can maybe see Wells’ socialism driving a slightly different concept and arguably it’s Bush’s Memex which had the most resonance.

Vannevar Bush lived through and was shaped by big science, but he also helped bolster its rise through the key role he played in the way 20th century science was run. We usually credit Tim Berners-Lee with the invention of the web. And so we should. But when people use the web as some sort of spin-off of the science done at CERN they are only telling half the story. If anything, the administration of science gave us the web, not science itself. We’d do well to recognise the impact the work such administrations have.

5 thoughts on “Vannevar Bush, science, the world’s brain and inventing the web

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