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Vannevar Bush

Given NameVannevar
Born11 Mar 1890
Died28 Jun 1974
CountryUnited States


ww2dbaseVannevar Bush was perhaps one of the most influential yet least-known Americans of the twentieth century. He was an American scientist and inventor who headed the offices through which almost all of the important World War II military research and development was carried out. These included critical advances in radar, munitions, the atomic bomb, and much more. While Vannevar Bush's impact on America's wartime technology almost cannot be overstated, the full extent of his legacy extends far beyond the war. It is left as an exercise for the reader to more thoroughly explore the fascinating life and impact of Vannevar Bush, as this narrative concentrates primarily on his World War II contributions.

ww2dbaseVannevar Bush was born 11 Mar 1890 in Everett, Massachusetts, United States. He attended Tufts College where he graduated in 1913 with both Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees. Bush's principal area of scientific interest was in electricity and magnetism. He returned to Tufts to teach mathematics while also enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Bush earned an electrical engineering doctorate degree issued jointly by MIT and Harvard. In Aug 1916, he married Phoebe Clara Davis who had attended Tufts with Bush.

ww2dbaseOnce World War I broke out, Bush began working with the National Research Council. This was the first of many similar organizations Bush served with throughout his lifetime that all basically had the same function: to bridge the academic world with the governmental world in order to provide cutting edge scientific knowledge in the creation of new and better tools for government, primarily the military. In so doing, this work also created a three-way bridging structure between science, government, and industry.

ww2dbaseOne of Bush's first contributions for the National Research Council was a device to detect submarines by measuring the disturbance their movement created in the Earth's magnetic field. His device worked but only from wooden boats so it got little use during World War I (the concept, of course, was precisely a Magnetic Anomaly Detector which later became an essential tool in anti-submarine warfare throughout the Cold War). Development of Bush's device also suffered from what Bush saw as weak support from the Council's administration, something he never forgot and tried to never repeat.

ww2dbaseIn 1919, Bush joined the faculty at MIT's Department of Electrical Engineering. By 1922, he had collaborated on his first college text book. Bush continued working with a Tufts technician who had developed a thermostatic electrical switch. Bush lined up some financial backers, they created a company to produce and market the devices, and Bush secured a job at that company as a consultant (with the inventor as president). The company itself was quite successful from the start and, over time, merged with other companies, was once part of the Texas Instruments portfolio, and still survives today in one of its descendant forms. In 1924, Bush teamed with a few other scientists to reorganize a refrigerator manufacturing company into a builder of some of the first vacuum tubes for radios; they called the new company Raytheon.

ww2dbaseIn 1927, Bush began development of something he called the differential analyzer. Again, building on the work started by others, Bush built a room-sized, 100-ton analog device that included a collection of shafts and pens. The machine could plot and solve differential equations with up to eighteen independent variables. Higher order differential equations were commonly encountered in physics but had been notoriously difficult to solve. Unlike earlier analog computational devices that relied solely on mechanical workings, Bush's differential analyzer was among the first to use electronic circuitry for some of the calculations. For developing this device, Bush was awarded Philadelphia's Benjamin Franklin Institute's 1928 Louis E. Levy Medal for scientific excellence.

ww2dbaseIn 1932, Bush was appointed to the vice-presidency of MIT and also Dean of the MIT School of Engineering.

ww2dbaseIn 1935, Bush was approached by Naval Intelligence about creating an electronic codebreaking device. The project was not delivered until 1938 and was not completely reliable in breaking codes. Nevertheless, it was an important step toward creating such a device and many of Bush's observations about cypher logic proved useful to later codebreakers.

ww2dbaseAs part of his academic workload at MIT, Bush taught Boolean algebra, circuit theory, and operational calculus. One of his graduate students wrote a master's thesis in 1937 on the application of Boolean algebra to electronic circuits, today considered a landmark study in the field. Simply put (perhaps over-simply), Boolean algebra is a branch of mathematics where values are limited to two possibilities: true or false, yes or no, north or south (as in polarity), zero or one - the very basis of the binary system for electronic circuits.

ww2dbaseIn May 1938, Bush accepted a prestigious appointment to the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C. and then became its president on 1 Jan 1939. From this position, he had considerable influence on research policy in the United States and was able to advise the government on scientific matters. Bush reshaped the institute to concentrate on ‘hard' science and de-emphasized the archeology, humanities, and social science programs. The institute had also been overseeing a study in eugenics that was controversial at the time and an embarrassment to many scientists, while at the same time being popular with many politicians and financial backers. Even so, Bush closed it down and eased its director into retirement.

ww2dbaseOn 23 Aug 1938, Bush was appointed vice-chairman of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the predecessor of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Its chairman, Joseph Ames, was more of an honorary chairman and most of the agency's leadership fell to Bush. On 5 Apr 1939, Bush appeared before the Senate Appropriations Committee in support of funding for a new aeronautical research laboratory in Sunnyvale, California, United States. The California location was chosen for its proximity to some of the largest aviation corporations and was supported by the United States Army Air Corps and by the Navy's Bureau of Aeronautics. Political foot-dragging slowed the process down so that once funding was approved, war had already broken out in Europe. The facility opened and would later become the Ames Research Center (one of the first high-end technical ventures in the area that what would become known as Silicon Valley). Once the British began using American aircraft in combat, certain inadequacies in engine design became apparent and in Jun 1940, NACA got approval for a separate research center in Ohio that became the Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory. Bush was making an early mark for the use of scientific research standards in military hardware development; this would be his trademark. Bush remained a member of NACA until Nov 1948.

ww2dbaseMilitary wisdom of the time was that a war had to be fought with the weapons that existed at its beginning. Bush believed that a war could best be won with weapons that had not even been thought of at the war's outbreak. Relying on his World War I experience of poor cooperation between civilian scientists and the military, Bush drew up a proposal for the creation of a federal agency to coordinate scientific research with defense mobilization. When Germany invaded France in May 1940, Bush felt things were moving too fast for his idea to wait for Congress. Bush reduced his multi-page draft to a four-paragraph outline on a single page for what he called the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) and made back-channel arrangements for a face-to-face meeting with President Franklin Roosevelt. They met on 12 Jun 1940 and Bush pitched his idea to the President. Roosevelt approved the proposal within 10 minutes, writing "OK - FDR" on Bush's outline. Those five handwritten letters were Bush's marching orders.

ww2dbaseBush wasted no time in including four leading scientists to the committee: Karl Taylor Compton, president of MIT; James B. Conant, president of Harvard University; Frank B. Jewett, chairman of Bell Laboratories and also president of the National Academy of Sciences; and Richard C. Tolman, dean of the graduate school at Caltech. On behalf of their respective weapons development branches, the military was represented by Navy Rear Admiral Harold G. Bowen, Sr. and Army Brigadier General George V. Strong. The civilian scientists already knew each other well so the organization began functioning immediately with Bush coordinating the sub-committees.

ww2dbaseIn Aug 1940, an overture from Sir Henry Tizard, chairman of the British Committee for the Scientific Survey of Air Defence, landed on Bush's desk. Tizard was seeking scientific collaboration between the American and British researchers. The two teams met on 19 Sep 1940 at the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington DC, United States where members on both sides started off quite wary of one another. After tentatively discussing their work on radar development, they found that their independent work had brought both teams to almost the same point with respect to long-wave radar (called "Chain Home" by the British). The Americans then admitted that their short-wave radar devices were unable to generate sufficient power to be practical, saying their work had reached a dead end. The British team then produced their prize jewel: a cavity magnetron tube that generated 1,000 times the power of what the American's were using. The British scientists said using this tube in an aircraft radar at night, they could spot the periscope of a submerged submarine. What the British lacked was the production capability to produce enough devices to make a difference in the war. The ice was broken and the two teams then collaborated freely on a range of topics including the extent of the British research into the radio proximity fuze, the Whittle gas turbine turbojet aircraft engine, and the Tube Alloys project (a British feasibility study of nuclear weapons). Designs for lesser projects were also shared, such rocketry, aircraft superchargers, gyroscopic gunsights, submarine detection devices, self-sealing fuel tanks, plastic explosives, and more. All by itself, this first meeting immediately led to vast improvements in scientific development on both sides.

ww2dbaseTo exploit the new radar advancement, Bush created a special laboratory at MIT that became known as the Radiation Laboratory. They were able to test a version of airborne radar within six months. By mid-1941, they had developed a mobile radar fire control system for antiaircraft guns. Radar development of all types blossomed rapidly.

ww2dbaseWork progressed but Bush's administrative structure was shuffled on 28 Jun 1941 when, by Executive Order, the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) was established with Vannevar Bush and all his scientists coming over. The predecessor NDRC continued to exist in a greatly reduced form. The administrative shake-up, however, removed all doubt about to whom Vannevar Bush answered: he answered directly to and only to Franklin Roosevelt.

ww2dbaseThe OSRD also had a more reliable funding stream and had the authority to develop weapons and technologies with or without the military, although one of Vannevar Bush's most laudable skills was the ability to maintain the confidence of the military which normally distrusted civilians to keep secrets or propose practical solutions to military problems. Bush's management style was to direct overall policy while delegating the work to qualified people and leaving them alone do their jobs. The new OSRD also had a new, co-equal mandate to further certain medical research, such as mobilizing the mass production of antibiotics. These efforts resulted directly in large quantities of penicillin and sulfa drugs being available in all American combat theaters - all by itself, another game-changer in how war was waged.

ww2dbaseSince the Tizard Mission of 1940, Bush's team had two sections dedicated to developing the proximity fuze. Section T under the direction of radar pioneering physicist Merle Tuve and Section E under physicist Alexander Ellett. Dr. Tuve's section had the specific assignment to develop a fuze for the United States Navy's 5-inch gun while Dr. Ellett's section, in broad collaboration with Bell Labs, developed similar fuzes for Army ordnance, an optical proximity fuze for anti-aircraft rockets, and a very successful magnetic proximity fuze for naval mines that later plagued Japanese waterways. The most impactful application of the proximity fuze, however, was in the anti-aircraft role for the Navy. Delivery of these shells began in Nov 1942 with immediate and lasting results.

ww2dbaseWhile the scientists under Bush's direction brought about some remarkable improvements in Allied weaponry, the effort is also correctly criticized for underestimating the value of rockets and, in particular, of guided missiles. Both the German Vergeltungswaffe V-1 and V-2 projects were well ahead of anything Bush's team was working on. The Germans also had the Henschel Hs 293 radio-controlled glide bomb that had no counterpart in Bush's portfolio. Dr. Robert Goddard would later be regarded as America's rocketry pioneer, but many contemporaries did not hold him in much regard. Before the war, Bush said, "I don't understand how a serious scientist or engineer can play around with rockets." He would have to personally walk-back some of his thinking in May 1944 when Bush traveled to London to personally warn General Dwight Eisenhower of the danger posed by the V-1 and V-2 missiles. As for possible countermeasures, Bush could only recommend bombing the missile launch sites, which was already being done. The V-1 barrage on Britain began a month later.

ww2dbaseWhen the NDRC was formed in 1940, another part of what got brought under Bush's umbrella was the Uranium Committee, which had been formed in 1939 under the National Bureau of Standards. Several other studies of atomic energy's potential had also been going on at several universities and in several countries. Bush took this question very seriously and quickly strengthened the Uranium Committee. The name of the committee was a little too obvious so it was given the code name Section S-1; but since the committee met in New York City's Borough of Manhattan, it became more commonly known as the Manhattan Committee. Their regular meeting place soon left Manhattan but that name is still associated with this project.

ww2dbaseOn 9 Oct 1941, Bush met with Roosevelt and the Vice-President, Henry Wallace. Bush briefed them on the British atomic energy findings that came through the Tizard Mission and subsequent exchanges. Not much was known about the German atomic research but Bush briefed them on what they had. Very little of this was unknown to Roosevelt but at this meeting, Roosevelt approved the expansion and expediting of America's atomic program. A Top Policy Group that included Wallace and Bush was established to oversee the different aspects of the venture. At Bush's recommendation, the President placed the overall project under Army authority.

ww2dbaseBush also highly recommended to Roosevelt the work of J. Robert Oppenheimer and Bush would remain an ardent supporter of Oppenheimer's scientific abilities (if not his politics) for the rest both their careers. As the project progressed, however, Bush became frustrated over how slowly the Army was moving (throughout Bush's lifetime, numerous associates described "impatience" as one of his most prominent traits), and he complained to the Under Secretary of War. Army Corps of Engineers Brigadier General Leslie Groves was placed in overall military control of the project and the pace picked up immediately. Bush would remain involved in the atomic project throughout the project's lifetime but the level of his involvement began to decrease once General Groves set a more accelerated pace.

ww2dbaseBush appeared on the cover of TIME magazine on 3 Apr 1944 and was featured inside in an article titled, "Yankee Scientist." He toured the European front in Oct 1944 and spoke directly with ordnance officers.

ww2dbaseOn 14 Nov 1944, ten days after Franklin Roosevelt was re-elected, the President sent a letter to Vannevar Bush. The letter clearly showed that Roosevelt was looking beyond the war and into the future peace. He asked Bush to comment on four specific points: how to declassify and publicize the scientific advancements achieved during the war; how to bring the sciences together to fight diseases as they had in developing weapons; how could government assist in scientific development; and how could new scientific talent be developed in American youth. The President closed the letter with the observation, "New frontiers of the mind are before us ..." Unfortunately, Roosevelt died before Bush could submit his reply but that reply was submitted to President Harry Truman in Jul 1945 under a header that echoed Roosevelt's words: Science, The Endless Frontier. In that letter, Bush laid out his post-war visions for a cooperative relationship between science and government that became the blueprint for much of what was to follow.

ww2dbaseWith President Roosevelt's death 12 Apr 1945, Bush became part of the Interim Committee to advise the new President, Harry Truman, and to advise him particularly on nuclear weapons. Bush was present on 16 Jul 1945 for the Trinity "Gadget" test at Alamogordo, New Mexico. After the blast, Bush tipped his hat to Oppenheimer in recognition.

ww2dbaseIn addition to his "Endless Frontier" letter, Bush and the other academics in his circle began looking for how science might help during peacetime as it had in war. Particularly, they had predicted the likelihood of a nuclear arms race that, in their view, should be avoided. Bush proposed international scientific openness on the subject. However, despite still being the designated scientific advisor to the President, Bush did not quite have the success promoting his ideas with Truman as he had with Roosevelt.

ww2dbaseAlso in Jul 1945, The Atlantic Magazine published an 8,000-word essay by Vannevar Bush titled, "As We May Think" that is still considered a visionary treatment of information science and artificial memory. The article was, in fact, a re-work of an article he wrote in 1939 and described his idea of a machine that could store huge amounts of information on microfilm which, for easy retrieval, would connect one topic with another through points where the information overlapped. He called the machine the "memex" which sounded conspicuously like a personal computer and his description of how these connection points of information would work, described in 1939, bears a striking similarity to what is known today as the hyperlink.

ww2dbaseMany in the scientific community shared Bush's wishes for the future as described in the "Endless Frontier" letter and, after much work, the end result was the formation of the National Science Foundation. Similarly, the Manhattan Project gave way to the Atomic Energy Commission and other wartime projects got their postwar restructuring. Bush's standing among scientists and politicians alike experienced a distinct decline during this period. From international nuclear weapons policy, the military's hesitancy to develop the jet engine, to American automobile makers' refusal to embrace better fuel efficiency, Bush's influence on a wide array of issues was not what it had been.

ww2dbaseEven so, Bush enjoyed the reputation of an elder statesman in the scientific community. In Sep 1949, Bush and Oppenheimer were part of a scientific panel that considered evidence about whether the Soviet Union had tested its first atomic bomb (which they had). Bush remained on many boards, committees, and councils but chaired fewer and fewer of them. He was showered with accolades in the form of prestigious awards and honorary degrees. In 1974, while recovering from a stroke, Bush developed pneumonia and died on 28 Jun 1974 at his home in Belmont, Massachusetts at age 84. In a biographical memoir published by the National Academy of Sciences in 1979, MIT president Jerome Wiesner said, "No American has had greater influence in the growth of science and technology than Vannevar Bush."

Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Tufts University
Jerome B. Wiesner; Vannevar Bush - A Biographical Memoir (1979)
National Science Foundation
The Atlantic Magazine - July 1945
Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library
TIME Magazine - 3 Apr 1944
Nuclear Secrecy Blog
Atomic Heritage Foundation
National Museum of Nuclear Science & History
Science History Institute
Internet Pioneers
WIRED Magazine - 1 Nov 1997
Encyclopedia Britannica
New World Encyclopedia

Last Major Revision: Aug 2021

Vannevar Bush Interactive Map

Vannevar Bush Timeline

11 Mar 1890 Vannevar Bush was born in Everett, Massachusetts, the son of a Universalist minister and the grandson of two sea captains.
23 Aug 1938 Vannevar Bush was appointed to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the predecessor of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
1 Jan 1939 Vannevar Bush became president of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, DC.
5 Apr 1939 Vannevar Bush appeared before the Senate Appropriations Committee in support of funding for a new aeronautical research laboratory in Sunnyvale, California, United States that later became the Ames Research Center.
12 Jun 1940 Vannevar Bush and Commerce Secretary Harry L. Hopkins met with President Franklin Roosevelt and proposed the formation of the National Defense Research Committee. Within 10 minutes, Roosevelt approved it writing "OK-FDR" on the single-page outline Bush had brought with him.
27 Jun 1940 US President Roosevelt declared a national emergency and re-invoked the Espionage Act of 1917 to control shipping in American waters and in waters near the Panama Canal Zone. On the same day, he also established the National Defense Research Committee under chairman Vannevar Bush to coordinate the development of war related sciences and technologies.
1 Jul 1940 The responsibility for nuclear fission research in the United States was transferred to the National Defense Research Committee under Vannevar Bush.
31 Aug 1940 Vannevar Bush met with Henry Tizard to arrange a series of meetings between American scientists and a British scientific delegation that would become known as the Tizard Mission.
19 Sep 1940 British members of the Tizard scientific mission met with their American counterparts at the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington DC, United States and began exchanging results of their scientific research up to that point, including and especially their radar technology. All by itself, this first meeting almost immediately led to vast improvements to radar on both sides and also led to further advancements in related areas, such as development of the proximity fuze.
17 May 1941 Arthur Compton and the United States National Academy of Sciences published a report noting the success rate of developing an atomic weapon was favorable. On the same day, Vannevar Bush created the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD).
28 Jun 1941 By Executive Order, Franklin Roosevelt established the Office of Scientific Research and Development with Vannevar Bush as its chairman.
3 Oct 1941 The official copy of the British Military Application of Uranium Detonation (MAUD) Committee Report, written by James Chadwick, reached Vannevar Bush.
9 Oct 1941 Vannevar Bush met with President Franklin Roosevelt and Vice-President Henry Wallace about the progress of the Uranium Committee. Bush described the progress of the British Military Application of Uranium Detonation (MAUD) Committee and what was known about what progress the Germans were making. Roosevelt approved an expedited atomic program and a Top Policy Group that included Wallace and Bush to control it.
6 Dec 1941 Vannevar Bush and Arthur Compton assigned Harold Urey to develop research into gaseous diffusion as a uranium enrichment method and Ernest Lawrence to investigate electromagnetic separation methods.
18 Dec 1941 The S-1 Section of the United States Office of Scientific Research and Development, the forerunner of the Manhattan Project, held its first meeting.
25 Jun 1942 The US Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) S-1 Executive Committee held a meeting to discuss the location of manufacturing facilities for the Manhattan Project.
13 Sep 1942 At a meeting of the S-1 Section Executive Committee of the United States Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), a decision was reached to build a laboratory to study fast neutrons. This study was to be codenamed Project Y.
3 Apr 1944 TIME Magazine feature Vannevar Bush on its cover and with an article inside titled "Yankee Scientist."
14 Nov 1944 President Franklin Roosevelt sent a letter to Vannevar Bush asking for comments on four specific points: how to declassify and publicize the scientific advancements achieved under Bush during the war; how to bring the sciences together to fight diseases as they had in developing weapons; how can government assist in creating scientific development; and how can new scientific talent be developed in American youth.
16 Jul 1945 The Americans successfully detonated an atomic bomb at Alamogordo Bombing Range in New Mexico, United States. The test blast created temperatures 10,000 times the surface temperature of the sun and was felt 200 miles away. The explosion was the equivalent of 20,000 tons of TNT and throws a column of fire and smoke 35,000 feet into the night sky. The authorities hid the blast by claiming that an ammunition dump had gone up.
28 Jun 1974 While recovering from a stroke, Vannevar Bush developed pneumonia and died at his home in Belmont, Massachusetts at age 84.


Vannevar Bush, 1915, age 25.Vannevar Bush in the laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, circa 1928.
See all 13 photographs of Vannevar Bush

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Visitor Submitted Comments

1. David Stubblebine says:
29 Jul 2021 11:50:57 AM

An often-asked question about Vannevar (van-EE-ver) Bush is about his relationship with the later Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. The answer is they are not related.

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Vannevar Bush, 1915, age 25.Vannevar Bush in the laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, circa 1928.
See all 13 photographs of Vannevar Bush

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