[SIGCIS-Members] What inspired Bush's Memex?

Bernard Geoghegan bernardgeoghegan2010 at u.northwestern.edu
Tue Nov 15 23:46:56 PST 2022

Hi Evan, Marc,

For backstories of the Memex, I’m a big fan of Colin Burke’s “Information and Secrecy: Vannevar Bush, Ultra, and the Other Memex.”

My, Code: From Information Theory to French Theory<https://www.dukeupress.edu/code>, examines the roots of the Memex and its predecessor, the Rapid Selector, in eugenics and biopolitics. If anyone wants a review copy of the book (it starts shipping next month, I think), please feel free to request one here<https://www.dukeupress.edu/Information-For/Booksellers-Media-Review-Copies/Request-Review-Copies>, or write me directly.

It’s highly significant that around 1939 when Bush left MIT for the Carnegie Institution—at the time he was working on varied information sorting devices—he quickly sought to reform the infamous Eugenics Records Office with the resources of the Carnegie. The ERO, like the interwar and wartime data devices Bush was working on, was based on the idea of sorting and collecting “records.” Hence, Bush’s suggestion to his former student, Claude E. Shannon, to write his PhD at the ERO—part of Bush’s larger project throughout the 1930s and 1940s to computationally and logically order science, in its varied data problems, in initiatives running from bioengineering to the Memex.

Below, two brief excerpts from Code: From Information Theory to French Theory:

“Bush and his colleagues envisioned the Rapid Selector as a general-purpose information processor suited to the analysis of genetic, business, library, and statistical data. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the Rockefeller Foundation had provided lavish support for the development of microphotography, a forerunner of microfiche, for documentation in the humanities. As such, the foundation stood out as an excellent candidate to support Bush’s work with the selector. Warren Weaver recorded in his notes from a 1937 meeting, “Sometime ago federal authorities asked him [Bush] to consider the problem of devising mechanical aids for rapidly locating fingerprints. . . . B[ush] worked out a system which would permit the examination of approximately 1,000 per second.” Considering the problem of rapidly sorting fingerprints, Weaver wrote, “it then occurred to him [Bush] that this scheme was possible for development into a new technique for making available the stored literature of the past.” In this manner biological and bibliographical data might be processed by the same techniques of automation exploited by mechanical computers….” (Geoghegan, Code, p. 32)

“Bush left MIT to assume the presidency of the Carnegie Institution, another of the great robber baron philanthropies and a sponsor of the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) in Cold Spring Harbor. By the late 1930s the deep and abiding biological racism propounded by the ERO had fallen out of fashion, and Bush sought to reset it on rigorous scientific foundations. Bush seized upon Shannon’s theory of relay switching as a model of how a haphazard, unscientific method could be rendered orderly and logical with applied mathematics. Bush later explained, “It occurred to me that, just as [Shannon’s] special algebra had worked well in his hands on the theory of [binary] relays, another special algebra might conceivably handle some of the aspects of Mendelian heredity.” Writing to ERO psychologist Barbara Stoddard Burks, who had mined the ERO’s sprawling records for evidence of a genetic basis for intelligence, Bush explained that he had suggested to Shannon that he “try his queer algebra” in the analysis of genetic problems. This offered a chance for Bush, who had intermittently championed bioengineering over the past decade at MIT, to realize his efforts to bring logical and computational analysis to bear on an infamously complex problem deemed of pressing social importance.” (Geoghegan, Code, p. 48)

Best wishes, Bernard

From: Members <members-bounces at lists.sigcis.org> on behalf of Marc Weber via Members <members at lists.sigcis.org>
Date: Wednesday, 16 November 2022 at 08:16
To: Koblentz, Evan <evank at njit.edu>
Cc: members at SIGCIS.org <members at sigcis.org>
Subject: Re: [SIGCIS-Members] What inspired Bush's Memex?
Bush was aware of a lot of prior work on related ideas in Europe for information technology, including that of Paul Otlet<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Otlet> and his Mundaneum, the World Brain article and later book<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Brain> by H.G. Wells, not to mention the actual microfilm retrieval mechanism built into a desk by Emanuel Goldberg<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emanuel_Goldberg> at Zeiss-Ikon in the early 1930s (Bush couldn’t patent certain aspects of the Memex because of Goldberg’s prior work).

Bush’s really important twist on prior work was to use two microfilm readers in parallel, thus allowing hypertext links between them and the sharing of “trails” made up of such links between users.

The start of the Web gallery<https://www.computerhistory.org/revolution/the-web/20/370> in our Revolution<https://www.computerhistory.org/revolution/topics#exhibition> exhibition very briefly talks about the work above except for Goldberg.

For books Professor Michael Buckland of UC Berkeley wrote Emanuel Goldberg and his Knowledge Machine<https://www.amazon.com/Emanuel-Goldberg-His-Knowledge-Machine/dp/0313313326/ref=sr_1_3?crid=1XDL8JJQMPQV7&keywords=michael+buckland&qid=1668573113&sprefix=michael+buckland,aps,167&sr=8-3> about the Memex’s precursor, as well as numerous articles. Paul Kahn of Brown University wrote From Memex to Hypertext<https://www.amazon.com/Memex-Hypertext-Vannevar-Minds-Machine/dp/0125232705/ref=sr_1_1?crid=3LG514Y333H3C&keywords=vannevar+bush+paul+kahn&qid=1668572978&sprefix=vannevar+bush+paul+kahn,aps,133&sr=8-1>, G. Pascal Zachary wrote an excellent biography of Bush<https://www.amazon.com/Endless-Frontier-Vannevar-Engineer-American-ebook/dp/B077721CMV/ref=sr_1_2?crid=GNW04BN9A1L4&keywords=vannevar+bush&qid=1668572875&sprefix=vannevar+bush,aps,372&sr=8-2>  and Bush wrote an autobiography<https://www.amazon.com/Pieces-Action-Vannevar-Bush-ebook/dp/B0B15CCH7N/ref=sr_1_1?crid=GNW04BN9A1L4&keywords=vannevar+bush&qid=1668572946&sprefix=vannevar+bush,aps,372&sr=8-1>.

Best, Marc

p.s. here’s a quote from Wikipedia on Goldberg’s microfilm retrieval machine and the Memex:
“...At the same Congress Goldberg introduced his "Statistical Machine," a document search engine that used photoelectric<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photoelectric> cells and pattern recognition<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pattern_recognition> to search the metadata<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metadata> on rolls of microfilmed<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microfilm> documents (US patent 1,838,389, 29 December 1931). This technology was used in a variant form in 1938 by Vannevar Bush<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vannevar_Bush> in his "microfilm rapid selector," his "comparator" (for cryptanalysis), and was the technological basis for the imaginary Memex<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memex> in Bush's influential 1945 essay "As we may think.”

On Nov 15, 2022, at 18:56, Koblentz, Evan via Members <members at lists.sigcis.org<mailto:members at lists.sigcis.org>> wrote:

Does anyone have documentation, or good theories, about how/where Vannevar Bush was inspired to develop his ideas for the speculative Memex? I know that he was privy to the latest computer developments, but how did he make the jump from plugboards and punch cards to a virtual encyclopedia and hypertext?
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