Futurists…Sometimes They Aren’t Crazy

In July of 1945, Dr. Vannevar Bush wrote an article for The Atlantic. At the time Dr. Bush was Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development. Basically, they were responsible for figuring out ways to kill people effectively and efficiently. So what I am saying is that the man was definitely a mad scientist of sorts.

Artist representation of the average OSRD scientist.

The reason I bring up the mad scientist aspect of Dr. Bush’s job is because the article he wrote, titled As We May Think, was far and away beyond anything possible at the time. In this paper, Dr. Bush is looking to direct scientists towards more noble efforts since the end of World War II was rapidly approaching. At the time, computational power was minimal at best. Most complicated calculations had to be done by hand. Storage medium was practically non-existent. Dr. Bush sought to direct the scientific community in the towards developing this technology. Many of his ideas and solutions in As We May Think are actually in use today. In some ways, even his vision was limited compared to the technology in existence today.

At the time the article was written the closes thing humanity had to a computer looked like this:

This thing definitely would not fit on my desk...

Within 50 years we had this:

This could do the job of thousands of the above "computer".

Today I have more computing power than 10 of the Compaq above in this:

Yeah, that's a phone. Or, is it a computer? There's no real distinction anymore.

As you can see, computers have developed rapidly since the 1940s. It was a slow start, but the minds of people like Dr. Bush is what made it all possible. He was not afraid to think outside of the box. Even better than that, he was not afraid to publish these thoughts and to encourage others to research and develop these wacky ideas.

Again, on many things Dr. Bush misses the mark, but even there he more or less gets things right. For example, he spends a good deal of the beginning of the article describing the technological advances of cameras. In fact, he stops very, very short of describing a modern day digital camera. What he was focusing on was the potential for film, microfilm specifically, to act as a storage and input method in computers. He saw vast potential in microfilm as being able to accumulate and expand upon human knowledge. He also envisioned a way for a user to be able to upload to a computer using some sort of photographic technique. Again, this idea was more prophetic than anything else. Today we do exactly that anytime we use a scanner. While it may not have occurred to most people, a scanner is simply a giant digital camera and all it really does is take a high resolution picture of whatever the user wants to scan in.

I can neither condone nor advise this.

My enjoyment of this article was not so much in the style, wording, or excitement of the writing itself. No, what I found fascinating is that even in 1945, that’s 66 years ago, there were already brilliant people thinking about ways to make real computing available. Not only did they think about ways to make it happen, but they were also able to imagine many ways in which computers of any significant power would benefit humanity. Don’t get me wrong, obviously all great creations have to start somewhere. I really do understand this. Considering how for computing has come in the last 10 years alone, it is amazing that some men had/have the vision to see what is possible.

The icing on the cake for Dr. Bush is that his article, written so many years ago, is available still to this day. Only it’s not just available in print like when it was originally published. Today anyone with a connection to the internet can view his prophecy. They can copy and paste it to so many different storage mediums that they would even make his head spin.

Really, I can not recommend enough that computer and history buffs should check this article out. I loved it and have forwarded it to many people. I would love to discuss it further so comments are most definitely encouraged.

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