Skip to content

Vannevar Bush’s Memex

“A record if it is to be useful to science, must be continuously extended, it must be stored, and above all it must be consulted.” (Bush, 1945)

Vannevar Bush was the founder of the precursor to NASA and the chief scientist of the Unites States during world war 2, as the founder and head of the National Defense Research Committee, an agency which he presented to president Roosevelt on a single price of paper which Roosevelt approved in 15 mins with the signature ‘FDR OK’. His singular drive towards technological progress, as his biographer Gregg Pascal Zachary (who joined us for a Future of Text) points out:

Bush’s influence crossed narrow disciplines, shaping the panorama of American experience. His analog computers foreshadowed the emergence of the digital computer, the most far-reaching tool ever devised. Not since Benjamin Franklin had an inventor played so large a role in government. Bush’s management of atomic weapons research, despite initial caution, was a model for later “big science” projects. His unstinting support for federal funding of science and engineering after World War II altered the face of higher education and guaranteed U.S. supremacy in military and civilian technology. His repeated call for military planning and coordination, at a time when defense spending devoured the lion’s share of the federal budget, provided a beacon for reformers.

Gregg Pascal Zachary, 1997

At the end of the war Bush published an article in the Atlantic Monthly with the evocative title ‘As We May Think’ where, as the editor highlights in the introduction: He urges that men of science should then turn to the massive task of making more accessible our bewildering store of knowledge.

Bush introduces a theoretical system: 

Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, ‘memex’ will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all 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.

“…the essential feature of the Memex. The process of tying two items together is the important thing” (Vannevar Bush , 1945)

He continues: 

The user taps a single key, and the items are permanently joined … Thereafter, at any time, when one of these items is in view, the other can be instantly recalled merely by tapping a button below the corresponding code space … Moreover, when numerous items have been thus joined together to form a trail, they can be reviewed in turn, rapidly or slowly … It is exactly as though the physical items had been gathered together from widely separated sources and bound together to form a new book. It is more than this, for any item can be joined into numerous trails.

The owner of the memex, let us say, is interested in the origin and properties of the bow and arrow. Specifically he is studying why the short Turkish bow was apparently superior to the English long bow in the skirmishes of the Crusades. He has dozens of possibly pertinent books and articles in his memex. First he runs through an encyclopedia, 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. Several years later, his talk with a friend turns to the queer ways in which a people resist innovations, even of vital interest. He has an example, in the fact that the outraged Europeans still failed to adopt the Turkish bow. In fact he has a trail on it. A touch brings up the code book. Tapping a few keys projects the head of the trail. A lever runs through it at will, stopping at interesting items, going off on side excursions. It is an interesting trail, pertinent to the discussion. So he sets a reproducer in action, photographs the whole trail out, and passes it to his friend for insertion in his own memex, there to be linked into the more general trail.

To me this is very much about citation handling as well as liquid view layouts. 

Published in[Glossary Term]Literature ReviewPhDThoughts