An essay, on my understanding of how digital technologies evolved when I began teaching grad students at the University of Washington.
That essay: As We May Think, published in the July 1945 issue of The Atlantic.
Dr. Vannevar Bush, the author, was director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development. That federal office coordinated “scientific research for military purposes during World War II,” which included the Manhattan project. He also established the National Science Foundation (NSF).
In that 1945 essay, Bush outlined the challenge of information overload:
The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships.
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. Today we make the record conventionally by writing and photography, followed by printing; but we also record on film, on wax disks, and on magnetic wires. Even if utterly new recording procedures do not appear, these present ones are certainly in the process of modification and extension.
Bush focused on a key challenge that still faces us: there is too much information for a mere mortal to keep up. “Publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record,” he wrote. Moreover, there were varied and competing media.
[T]here is increased evidence that we are being bogged down today as specialization extends. 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.
Bush began painting a picture of what a future information creation and processing system might look like. Read this and be amazed that it was written 60+ years before the iPhone, hands-free computing and easy-to-use voice-to-text.
One can now picture a future investigator in his laboratory. His hands are free, and he is not anchored. As he moves about and observes, he photographs and comments. Time is automatically recorded to tie the two records together. If he goes into the field, he may be connected by radio to his recorder. As he ponders over his notes in the evening, he again talks his comments into the record. His typed record, as well as his photographs, may both be in miniature, so that he projects them for examination.
As I read “As We May Think” in 2003, it was the “memex” that captured my attention.
Bush described an individual using a mechanical system to create something similar to hypertext. An individual could link items in an associative manner that made sense to them. Someone might connect a government report, personal notes and a photograph or sketch.
The information would be stored on microfilm.
When data of any sort are placed in storage, they are filed alphabetically or numerically, and information is found (when it is) by tracing it down from subclass to subclass. It can be in only one place, unless duplicates are used; one has to have rules as to which path will locate it, and the rules are cumbersome. Having found one item, moreover, one has to emerge from the system and re-enter on a new path.
The human mind does not work that way. It operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain. It has other characteristics, of course; trails that are not frequently followed are prone to fade, items are not fully permanent, memory is transitory. Yet the speed of action, the intricacy of trails, the detail of mental pictures, is awe-inspiring beyond all else in nature.
The hypothetical memex that Bush envisioned foreshadowed personal computers, handheld photographic and recording devices, hypertext and the Internet.
Bush would update that essay as a book chapter in 1965.
Also in 1965, the Association for Computing Machinery (now simply ACM) first published Ted Nelson’s ideas about hypertext. Nelson, considered the father of hypertext, credits Bush with inspiration. Hypertext preceded the Internet through HyperCard, for example, and the “help” systems built into software.
Born 11 March 1890 in Everett, MA, Bush died on 28 June 1974.