July 1945 November 2012

As We May Think

As head of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, Bush oversaw the military’s technological advancement during World War II. Afterward, he turned his attention to a litany of new projects, including one aimed at making voluminous stores of information more accessible. In this visionary article, Bush proposes a curious device that resembles what is now the Internet.
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Of what lasting benefit has been man’s use of science and of the new instruments which his research brought into existence? … There is a growing mountain of research. But there is increased evidence that we are being bogged down …

But there are signs of a change as new and powerful instrumentalities come into use …

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.

It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers. Otherwise it looks like an ordinary desk.

In one end is the stored material. The matter of bulk is well taken care of by improved microfilm … Most of the memex contents are purchased on microfilm … Books of all sorts, pictures, current periodicals, newspapers, are thus obtained and dropped into place. Business correspondence takes the same path … If the user wishes to consult a certain book, he taps its code on the keyboard, and the title page of the book promptly appears before him, projected onto one of his viewing positions … 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 …

The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities … The physician, puzzled by a patient’s reactions, strikes the trail established in studying an earlier similar case, and runs rapidly through analogous case histories, with side references to the classics for the pertinent anatomy and histology. The chemist, struggling with the synthesis of an organic compound, has all the chemical literature before him in his laboratory, with trails following the analogies of compounds, and side trails to their physical and chemical behavior …

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.

Read the full article in the July 1945 Atlantic.

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