Revered engineer Vannevar Bush born, March 11, 1890

-March 11, 2017

Vannevar Bush, an American engineer, inventor, and science administrator, who was considered key to winning Word War II and was, in effect, the first presidential science advisor, was born on March 11, 1890.

Bush (photo, right) is best known for his work as head of the US Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) during WWII, through which almost all wartime military R&D was carried out, including initiation and early administration of the Manhattan Project. In this role, Bush coordinated the activities of some six thousand leading American scientists in the application of science to warfare and was consulted on many White House decisions regarding the war.

A trusted advisor by many politicians and members of the military in the 1930s and 1940s, Bush was appointed to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the predecessor of NASA, in 1938. He soon became its chairman.

He is also known in engineering for his work on analog computers and for the memex, an adjustable microfilm viewer with a structure analogous to that of the World Wide Web.

Bush received his doctorate in engineering from MIT and Harvard University jointly in 1917. Two years later, he joined MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering. He was named an MIT vice president and dean of MIT’s school of engineering in 1932.

During his time at MIT, he founded the company now known as Raytheon in 1922.

He also started work in 1927 on a differential analyzer, an analog computer with some digital components that could solve differential equations with as many as 18 independent variables. An offshoot of the work at MIT by Bush and others was the beginning of digital circuit design theory.

He was so revered that Bush appeared on the cover of Time magazine on April 3, 1944. But when Truman became president of the Unites States in 1945, politics turned and Bush’s authority began to decline.

As example, in September 1949, Bush was appointed to head a scientific panel to review the evidence that the Soviet Union had tested its first atomic bomb. The panel included Robert Oppenheimer, best known as the “father of the atomic bomb” and a man who Bush respected as a peer.

After the panel concluded that the Soviet Union had done so and relayed this to Truman, the Oppenheimer security hearing stripped Oppenheimer of his security clearance in 1954. Outraged, Bush issued an attack on Oppenheimer's accusers in the New York Times but his opinion offered little weight at the time.

Bush went on to work with companies including AT&T and Merck & Co, as well as the Smithsonian Institution. During Truman’s presidency, Bush also had a heavy hand in creating the National Science Foundation, overcoming political obstacles that stood against the foundation.

Along the course of his career, Bush received the AIEE's Edison Medal, the Public Welfare Medal from the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Medal of Science. In 1980, the National Science Foundation created the Vannevar Bush Award to honor his contributions to public service. Further, MIT's Building 13 is named the Vannevar Bush Building in his honor, and is the home of the Center for Materials Science and Engineering.

After suffering a stroke, Bush died in Belmont, MA, at the age of 84 from pneumonia in June 1974.

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Editor's note: This article was originally posted on March 11, 2013 and edited on March 11, 2017.



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