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Dr Vannevar and the Memex

Welcome to 1945: the Second World War is over and things are beginning to change rapidly. Enter DR. Vannevar Bush (pronounced van-NEE-ver). Dr. Bush was born in Everett, Massachusetts on March 11th 1890: he was an American engineer and also a science engineer, and was famous for his work on analog computing and for his political role in developing the atom bomb. As well as this fame, he found new fame decades later with his idea of the “Memex” which was to be seen as the pioneering concept of the World Wide Web that today we call the internet.

Dr. Bush first thought of the concept of hypertext in an article published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1945 entitled “As We May Think”. In this article he discusses that because the war was now over it was time for scientists to turn to the massive task of finding a way to make our vast mass store of information more accessible. He knew it was time, because we had the tools at hand to undergo such a huge endeavour – and endeavour which would enable man to take control of the knowledge and history of mankind.

Dr. Bush believed this was the next critical step scientists needed to take, as new powerful instruments came into use. Bush goes on to describe in the 1945 article that all of the technological advances we had made in our short history. He was a strong believer in storing data.

Dr. Bush went on to propose the idea of a almost limitless, quick, extensible, associative memory storage and retrieval system. This system, which was to become known as the Memex. This theoretical system would become the first step of many in the development of the internet.

The Memex

“Memex” which stands for memory extender, was a theoretical pre-hypertext computer system which became influential in the development of future hypertext computer systems.

Dr. Bush described this device as being able to link to a library electronically and display artefacts from the library; things such as books and films, and be able to cross-reference one work to another. The system was to be controlled by microfilm cameras and readers all built into a large desk. The user could add and remove microfilm when needed.

Other features of the Memex would have been the ability to record new information on microfilm by taking photographs and inserting your own comments. The users could also build a trail of their own. They could then save this trail and then pass it on to friends and colleagues to be inserted into their own Memex. The system would have had a typewriter with voice recognition software. Also have the ability to read text by speech synthesises.

Although Dr. Bush’s idea inspired hypertext systems, this system was not a hypertext system in itself. The reason for this was his system links connection sequences of microfilm, whereas today’s hypertext connects words or pictures within a document.

Dr. Bush’s ideas where never really realised until the invention of Wikipedia and social networking websites, as his system would have allowed people to create personal trails and share them with friends or colleagues or even publish them freely.

However early and preconceived Dr. Bush’s ideas were you have to agree a lot of the ideas this man came up with have now been put into place. Although he can’t completely be credited for inventing the internet I’m sure he planted the seed that began the idea of the internet, clearly a man ahead of his time.

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