Vannevar Bush
Written by Historian   
Sunday, 27 September 2009
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Vannevar Bush
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The story of Vannevar Bush is one of the strangest of the pioneers of computing. After all who else can you think of who positively disclaimed any credit for the invention of the digital computer:

"Who invented the computer? I can write at once that I did not: in fact I had little to do with that whole development".

However, he did have rather more to do with computing than he was letting on. He built several analog machines, which he owned up to, and started building one of the earliest digital computer which he seemed to have forgotten all about! And he introduced a concept that can be considered the forerunner of the hyperlink that is now so prevalent in the interconnected Web.



Vannevar E Bush (1890-1974)

Vannevar Bush considered himself an inventor. He had a finely honed instinct for mechanical devices. While an undergraduate he designed an amazing device that measured ground levels. You rolled it over the terrain and it drew a graph of the change in height. The device was purely mechanical but it included an integrator - the basic component needed to build an analog computer. The machine was so impressive that he was awarded both a patent in 1912 and a degree on the basis of it. He then moved on to a PhD in electrical engineering at MIT and Harvard.


The profile tracer

Although he was keen on mechanical engineering he specialised in the relatively new subject of electrical engineering. He wrote a textbook on the mathematical analysis of circuits and taught a course so popular that he had to recruit more lecturers. Eventually he realised the other lecturers knew more about the subject than he did and he handed the course over to them and the responsibility for producing a newer volume.

Bush always felt that handing on the work to younger people was a good thing to do. He was a generous man who never failed to give credit and/or responsibility to others - and this goes some way to explaining why he was so quick at disclaiming all responsibility for inventing the digital computer!

Another important feature of Bush's character is that he really did enjoy tinkering with machinery and he thought of himself as an inventor - more to the point an inventor without the artificial barriers of subject classifications. Later in his career he took charge of a pharmaceutical research lab even though he knew little about chemistry. He had a liveliness of mind and a confidence that intelligence and problem solving ability could do anything that is often lacking in today’s over-compartmentalised world.

He drove a steam car, a Stanley Steamer, for many years and came to an easy understanding of its workings. He mastered the art of coaxing it up icy hills to see his future wife and of avoiding major fires. One day when it flooded and caught fire he sat by the side of the road waiting for it to go out but a traffic cop turned up and complained that if he wanted to burn his car there was a municipal dump just up the road. He explained that it was only a matter of time but the traffic cop wasn't convinced. When the fire eventually went out he drove away on the full head of steam that had built up leaving behind a bewildered traffic cop.

He worked for General Electric for a while but eventually found his way back to MIT as a professor of electrical engineering. Eventually he would rise to become the head of the faculty. His first steps into the world of computing were taken because of the need to solve equations. This is the recurring need that drove computer development in the early years.





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