McManus on Bush, 'The Essential Writings of Vannevar Bush'

Vannevar Bush
Alison McManus

Vannevar Bush. The Essential Writings of Vannevar Bush. Edited by G. Pascal Zachary. New York: Columbia University Press, 2022. xxxviii + 347 pp. $120.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-231-11642-8; $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-231-11643-5

Reviewed by Alison McManus (Princeton University) Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (June, 2022) Commissioned by Penelope K. Hardy (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)

Printable Version:

According to literary critic Henry James, there is a dual purpose in reviving an author of the past. Historical significance is one reason, and intrinsic value another. The same might be said of historical figures, as G. Pascal Zachary notes in his most recent volume on American engineer Vannevar Bush. In a deftly curated collection of Bush’s writings, Zachary presents a three-dimensional picture of one of the United States’s most influential figures in science policy, who led the wartime Office of Scientific Research and Development and spearheaded the creation of the National Science Foundation (NSF). The collection traces the evolution of Bush’s thinking on matters of urgent contemporary concern, including industrial organization, nuclear proliferation, computer science, and the impact of technological innovation on American life. At the same time, Zachary incorporates writings that showcase Bush’s literary talent and professional philosophy. In this volume, Bush appears as both an object of study and a guide to the trials and tribulations of technological modernity. In other words: this is a work of history, pure and applied.

As Bush’s sole biographer, Zachary is uniquely suited to select, assemble, and frame the highlights of the engineer’s vast literary corpus. The resultant edited volume incorporates fifty-six short pieces of writing, which Bush penned between 1922 and 1970. Essays, speeches, and correspondence are presented alongside excerpts from Bush’s better-known publications, such as Science, The Endless Frontier (1945) and Pieces of the Action (1970). Most selections appear in print for the first time. Zachary has provided brief introductory remarks, which contextualize each piece and alert the reader to salient themes. The volume also includes a preface by former NSF director and presidential science advisor Neal Lane, who muses on the role of science organization during the COVID-19 pandemic and testifies to Bush’s ongoing relevance.

The selected writings are presented chronologically rather than thematically, a reasonable approach given Bush’s broad array of research and political interests. Some stand out as having particular historical significance. These include “Science and National Defense” (1941), containing Bush’s claim that efficient research organization would be essential to winning the upcoming war, as well as the aforementioned Science, the Endless Frontier (1945), in which he mobilized the fraught “frontier” metaphor to garner support of basic research. These were relatively popular positions, but, as Zachary shows, Bush also communicated certain riskier beliefs. Many readers will be interested to learn that Bush, despite his previous work on the Manhattan Project and his support of Truman’s containment policies, opposed the creation of the hydrogen bomb and sought to delay the test (“The Timing of the Thermonuclear Test,” 1952). Relatedly, Bush emerged as a staunch defender of J. Robert Oppenheimer when the latter’s security clearance was revoked for adopting a similarly critical stance (“In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” 1954).

Other pieces stand out for their literary value. Bush was fond of placing intriguing turns of phrase in unlikely places, from textbooks to the Institute of Textile Research, where he remarked in 1932, “I have always envied the duck” (p. 5). (He referred, of course, to its lightweight and waterproof feathers.) When it came to computers, Bush’s literary output displayed an aura of techno-futurism. His imaginative discussions of the memex (a fictional machine that organized knowledge by association rather than indexing) came closer to the genre of science fiction than science policy at the time of his writing, never mind its resemblance to the computers of today (“As We May Think,” 1945). Reading Bush’s writing on computers, one might also ponder the role of literary imagination in fueling basic research.

If the volume contains a single unifying theme, it is to be found in Bush’s professional philosophy: the notion that science and engineering should serve human needs. This outlook, which he styled as “ministration to the people,” remained remarkably consistent throughout his public career (p. 52). Zachary’s two most direct examples are “The Qualities of A Profession” (1939) and “The Art of Management” (1967). Bush’s valuation of utility is well known, but Zachary’s volume enables the reader to explore it more critically and at greater depth. Notably, Bush opposed the Apollo Program on the grounds that it was merely a resource-intensive spectacle (“On Space Exploration,” 1961-63). He reserved similar criticism for managers who sought profit over all else (“The Art of Management,” 1967). Bush’s notion of “ministration” had limitations and imperfections. Zachary explicitly avoids hagiography, and in so doing, invites his readers to critically analyze Bush’s professional philosophy for themselves. A reader might question Bush’s technological optimism in an era of climate change and algorithmic bias, or they might interrogate Bush’s linking of utility and Cold War militarism.

Zachary has brought to light a fascinating collection of primary sources and, following in the footsteps of Bush himself, framed them in accessible prose. The book is an excellent resource for Cold War historians, college instructors, and undergraduates. Scientists, engineers, and policymakers might also peruse these pages, perhaps with their own professional missions in mind.

Citation: Alison McManus. Review of Bush, Vannevar, The Essential Writings of Vannevar Bush. H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. June, 2022. URL:

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