Vannevar Bush: The History of his Moment, His Moment in History

December 16, 1998

Book Review
Richard H. Herman

Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century. By G. Pascal Zachary, The Free Press, New York, 1997, 512 pages, $32.50.

"I hope nobody will ever write a biography of me," Vannevar Bush once said, "because I think it probably would be terrible." Bush could not have been further from the truth in his conjecture. Zachary has written a compelling and well-researched chronicle of the career of Vannevar Bush, an engineer's engineer, who argued throughout the course of his life for a much greater role for scientists and engineers in shaping the future of American society.

Using a quote that illustrates the passion and zeal with which Bush pursued all of his endeavors, Zachary draws a comparison between Bush and C.P. Snow. Worried about the isolation of scientists and engineers, Bush observed:

"One most unfortunate product is the type of engineer who does not realize that in order to apply the fruits of science for the benefit of mankind, he must not only grasp the principles of science, but must also know the needs and aspirations, the possibilities and frailties of those whom he would serve."

This noble sentiment, and the enormous success of research in altering the course of the war, led Bush later in life to his belief in "a technologically advanced America governed by the masters of science and technology." And while Bush allowed that the "governance" might take the form of direct advice to those who actually "governed," such sentiments sometimes stood in conflict with political realities---as, for example, in the military, where Bush is properly credited with the creation of a societally beneficial complex with industry and universities.

There is, however, no mistaking Bush's enormous contributions, as made clear by the physicist Arthur Compton's view of Bush, quoted by Zachary. The quote, in that it captures the excitement of Zachary's text, is worth repeating in part here:

"His [Bush's] understanding of men and science and his boldness, courage and perseverance put in the hands of American soldiers weapons that won battles and saved lives. But his great achievement was that of persuading a government, ignorant of how science works and unfamiliar with the strange ways of scientists, to make effective use of the power of their knowledge."

This biography takes us through Bush's life from his time as a graduate student at MIT. Even then, his characteristic toughness emerged as he sought (successfully) to have the judgment of his thesis adviser about the suitability of his doctoral thesis overturned by Dugald Jackson, head of MIT's Electrical Engineering Department. An inspiration to Bush, Jackson would draw him back to MIT from Tufts in 1919.

Bush's role as an inventor par excellence is portrayed through various accomplishments, in particular his milestone work on the differential analyzer-a mechanical device used to solve differential equations by analogue means. The analyzer drew great praise in many quarters, from science to the military. Bush's work on machines that today would be called personal computers and on the field of study now called "human-computer interaction" was truly visionary.

Zachary portrays the excitement surrounding Bush's article "As We May Think," which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1945. In the article, Bush describes a new machine, dubbed a "memex," which at one level was a mechanical memory aid of enormous proportions but at another offered "a breathtaking vision . . . [and] . . . a careful description of the benefits to ordinary people of automating thought."

But it was his involvement with the private sector at MIT, along with his fundamental belief in the importance of military preparedness for the nation, that ultimately led Bush to declare that he thought he might be useful in Washington in time of war. This was in 1938, and his first position was at the helm of the Carnegie Institute of Washington, which had been created "to influence the direction of research in America." Zachary takes us through Bush's important roles on various advisory committees, none more so than that as head of the wartime Office of Scientific Research and Development. In his ability to organize experts, Bush was second to none, as made clear in the creation of the Rad(iation) Lab at MIT to develop radar after the arrival of Britain's magnetron. This story, along with those of the development of the proximity fuze at Johns Hopkins, the Manhattan Project, and many other notable wartime advances, led to Bush's lionization as one of the nation's most influential government officials under Roosevelt. He had been a principal in forging an alliance between industry, academia, and the military based on the critical importance of that alliance to national security.

But with the end of the war came the postwar battle for control of civilian science policy. This battle, Zachary writes, "proved to be a striking example of Bush's political deafness." His open disagreements with Senator Harley Kilgore, who wanted to see, for example, support for the social sciences and public ownership of patents, long delayed passage of civilian science legislation. While the National Science Foundation did eventually emerge, it came later and was different from the agency envisioned by Bush, without medical or military research.

Zachary's text certainly provides the reader with a sense of the rich and unique background from which emerged Bush's seminal report, Science, the Endless Frontier. But it does much more than that as it describes in (sometimes painful) detail not just Bush's successes but his failures as well---if you will, his rise to and descent from power. To paraphrase Zachary, Bush was a person who was successful because of his substance. He was a man essential for the nation in time of war, managing to mine the country's varied expertise. "Then the world changed. Bush's approach lost its relevance and it was no longer natural to follow his lead."

One criticism of the text is that there could have been a more thorough discussion of Bush's "linear view" of research and development. By and large, Bush held that basic research led to applied research, which in turn led to product development. This view, which has now been replaced by a more "linked and interactive" model, did much to influence science policy and expenditures for decades. Indeed, Jerome Wiesner offered a fitting epitaph to Bush's career, praising him as second to none "in having influence in the growth of science and technology."

There are several other messages to be drawn from this biography. One is that Endless Frontier arose from a unique situation, in which research changed the course of the war. The report asked much more than what the nation could do for science, dealing with disease as well as national security, with jobs as well as industrial research. As such, its logical successors can be found in, for example, such texts as Endless Frontier, Limited Resources (Council on Economic Competitiveness, 1996).

A second message is contained in Bush's lament (page 256) that scientists have been neither effective nor active in discussing public affairs. Bush wanted to see more scientists and engineers occupying cabinet posts (rather than having science seek a cabinet post of its own). While it certainly can be argued that this opinion was just Bush's view of who should be running the country, the lack of involvement of our colleagues in public affairs certainly contributed to the enormous gulf in understanding between scientists and Congress in the debate over "strategic research" and accountability in the early '90s.

There is much to the tale of Vannevar Bush, the history of his moment and his moment in history. G. Pascal Zachary knows this tale well and relates it with great flair.

Bush's influence has been enormous. Many have strived to write a modern version of Endless Frontier, the text that epitomizes Bush's approach to U.S. science and technology policy. Such an effort might turn out to be futile. After all, the Bush report was tailored to its time. Thanks to Bush, the environment today is different from that of 1945. Science and technology have their own widespread infrastructure, and the diversity of participants, both the generators of ideas and their users, make the task of creating and agreeing to a new science policy more complex. What is required is not so much a "call to arms" as a joining of forces between government, universities, and industry to keep U.S. science at the leading edge.

The author thanks Erich Bloch, former director of the National Science Foundation, for critical reading of this review.

Richard H. Herman is provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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