Dr Vannevar Bush was the Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development and he “coordinated the activities of some six thousand leading American scientists in the application of science to warfare” during the WWII. Once the fighting had stopped and the war was over, what was going to become of all these scientists?
Vannevar wrote an article for the Atlantic Monthly in July 1945, where he urged for scientific effort to focus on collecting human knowledge and making it more accessible. In other words, data collection and extraction. Sound familiar? In his article, Vannevar predicted a lot of the technology we have today. I wanted to bring attention to it, because reading this has always helped me find some perspective as to what we are doing today.
About the way that the human mind accesses and deals with knowledge, he says “Yet the speed of action, the intricacy of trails, the detail of mental pictures, is awe-inspiring beyond all else in nature.”
I’m going to pick out the things relevant to the science of search:
Vannevar says that the “record of ideas” we have collected ensures that knowledge “evolves and endures throughout the life of a race rather than that of an individual.”
“Mere compression, of course, is not enough; one needs not only to make and store a record but also be able to consult it, and this aspect of the matter comes later. Even the modern great library is not generally consulted; it is nibbled at by a few.”
“Much needs to occur, however, between the collection of data and observations, the extraction of parallel material from the existing record, and the final insertion of new material into the general body of the common record.”
“This is a much larger matter than merely the extraction of data for the purposes of scientific research; it involves the entire process by which man profits by his inheritance of acquired knowledge.”
“There may be millions of fine thoughts, and the account of the experience on which they are based, all encased within stone walls of acceptable architectural form; but if the scholar can get at only one a week by diligent search, his syntheses are not likely to keep up with the current scene.”
“Our ineptitude in getting at the record is largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing. When data of any sort are placed in storage, they are filed alphabetically or numerically, and information is found (when it is) by tracing it down from subclass to subclass. It can be in only one place, unless duplicates are used; one has to have rules as to which path will locate it, and the rules are cumbersome. Having found one item, moreover, one has to emerge from the system and re-enter on a new path.”
Having a..”record of ideas and has enabled man to manipulate and to make extracts from that record so that knowledge evolves and endures throughout the life of a race rather than that of an individual.
“A record if it is to be useful to science, must be continuously extended, it must be stored, and above all it must be consulted.”
“If the human race has produced since the invention of movable type a total record, in the form of magazines, newspapers, books, tracts, advertising blurbs, correspondence, having a volume corresponding to a billion books, the whole affair, assembled and compressed, could be lugged off in a moving van.” (We have exceeded this today)
“Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready-made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified.”
…” Thus he builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him.”
“Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, “memex” will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.”
“A special button transfers him immediately to the first page of the index. Any given book of his library can thus be called up and consulted with far greater facility than if it were taken from a shelf.”
“Will the author of the future cease writing by hand or typewriter and talk directly to the record? He does so indirectly, by talking to a stenographer or a wax cylinder; but the elements are all present if he wishes to have his talk directly produce a typed record.”
The Voder and the Vocoder are mentioned, Vannevar sees these as being the starts of something big. He says that if you let the Vocoder run the stenotype, you get a machine which types when talked to.
“Presumably man’s spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems. He has built a civilization so complex that he needs to mechanize his records more fully if he is to push his experiment to its logical conclusion and not merely become bogged down part way there by overtaxing his limited memory. His excursions may be more enjoyable if he can reacquire the privilege of forgetting the manifold things he does not need to have immediately at hand, with some assurance that he can find them again if they prove important.”
And so we are trail blazers…
“There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record.”