The Memex, the Manhatten Project, and the month of July 1945

17.36, Friday 14 May 2021

In July 1945, Vannevar Bush came up with the Memex, a fictional proto-computer to augment your memory, manage your research and contribute to knowledge of the world. His article was published in The Atlantic and you can read it online – although this scanned version also has the ads and the illustrations, so check it out.

Anyway, for a made-up bit of furniture (it’s a desk with a microfilm library inside), it has been enormously influential. Doug Engelbart, whose team kicked off the personal computer vision in 1968: he read Bush’s article in a Red Cross hut in the Phillipines in 1945/46, and it kickstarted his vision. Here’s the hut (or at least one nearby).

Tim Berners-Lee, when he wrote the proposal for what became the web, in 1989: he cites Ted Nelson’s vision of hypertext; Nelson credits Bush as his main influence.

Vannevar Bush (1890–1974) headed up the US government’s military R&D during the Second World War, coordinating thousands of scientists. Just one of his projects was the S-1 Section, which showed the feasibility of the atomic bomb, and he initiated the Manhattan Project, the massive project that created the bomb itself.

So it isn’t hard to see the origin of his insights about exploring and connecting knowledge.

But the Memex was still an achievement of the imagination: in 1945, computers were mainly electromechanical calculating machines; the electronic computer was brand new (ENIAC weighed 30 tons); programming a computer meant a days-long process rewiring a removable plugboards. Computers that could be used interactively were still several years in the future. So the idea of a computer for personal use, let alone a desk that you would work with by drawing and speaking, in which you could the hyperlinked knowledge of entire libraries - and your own correspondance too - it’s a leap.

Also in July 1945, the same month as the publication of his speculative article in The Atlantic, and this is a coincidence, the Trinity test: the first ever detonation of a nuclear device, and the beginning of the grim culmination of the atomic project.

RELATED: A strange loop in time involving Doug Engelbart and Brian Eno.

These two legacies, the Memex and the Manhatten Project: which has had the greater influence on the world?

Probably in the year of Bush’s death, 1974, still a decade before the first popular personal computer, and at the height of the Cold War, Bush would have seen the atomic bomb as his project which most altered the world. Perhaps now, in 2021, it’s the Memex? I wonder.

I know it’s only a coincidence, these two events in the same month, but it invites the comparison. Could Bush’s perspective that led to the Memex have even been formed without his exposure to the vast scale of cross-pollinating scientific research, a context only possible in wartime?

My fear is that they’re two sides of the same coin, and that’s an ugly lesson.

My hope is that what Bush had is something that didn’t require war (and what a war) to be formulated, which is a theory of human betterment and a belief in human progress, and it’s that framework that guided his formative speculations, and that at least is a method we can safely imitate.

More posts tagged:
Follow-up posts:

If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it by email or on social media. Here’s the link. Thanks, —Matt.