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Vannevar Bush

In 1943, the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE) selected Vannevar Bush (Fig. 1) as the recipient of the Edison Medal. He was honored for his role in “the development of new applications of mathematics to engineering problems, and for his eminent service to the nation in guiding the war research program.” He spent most of his professional career as an electrical engineering educator and administrator and was a leader in the development of electromechanical computers. His active role in organizing and directing large-scale research and development projects during World War II made him one of the most influential electrical engineers of the twentieth century.

The AIEE selected Vannevar Bush as the 1943 Edison Medal recipient for the development of new applications of mathematics to engineering and for his eminent national service in guiding the war research program.

Figure 1
Fig. 1. Vannevar Bush With the Differential Analyzer. (Courtesy of the MIT Museum.)


The son of a Universalist minister, Vannevar Bush was born March 11, 1890, in Everett, MA. After attending public school in Chelsea, MA, he tutored mathematics while earning an undergraduate degree at Tufts College in Medford, MA. He also completed a master's degree at Tufts in 1913. He was an instructor in mathematics at Tufts while enrolled in a graduate program in electrical engineering offered jointly by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). One of his principal mentors was Dugald C. Jackson (Fig. 2), who had joined the MIT faculty in 1907 and established a graduate program that awarded its first doctorate in 1910. Jackson stressed close ties between engineering education and industry. Bush later acknowledged the strong influence that Professor Jackson had on his own approach to education.

Figure 2
Fig. 2. Dugald C. Jackson. (Courtesy of IEEE History Center.)

Bush completed the requirements for a doctoral degree in 1916. The same year, he became an assistant professor of electrical engineering at Tufts. He authored a paper entitled “The Coupled Circuit by the Method of Generalized Angular Velocities,” published in the Proceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineers in October 1917. During World War I, Bush conducted research for the U.S. Navy on the magnetic detection of submarines. The technique did not become operational before the end of the war. However, the experience helped convince him of the need for more effective cooperation between civilian researchers and the military. This was a lesson he later applied during the second World War.

In 1919, Bush joined the faculty at MIT as an associate professor of electrical engineering. During the 1920s, he accumulated considerable wealth by founding companies to develop and market inventions. One example was the American Appliance Company, founded in 1922 to manufacture rectifiers for radio receivers. This firm evolved into Raytheon Manufacturing Company, which became a major supplier of military electronics during and after World War II. Bush was the coauthor with Charles G. Smith of a paper entitled “A New Rectifier” published by the Institute of Radio Engineers (IRE) in February 1922. Bush also was a founder of the Spencer Thermostat Company.

Bush specialized in the mathematical analysis of electric power systems. With the support of the General Electric Company and other companies in the power industry, he and his MIT colleagues developed calculating tables, network analyzers, and the differential analyzer to help solve complex problems. Calculating tables were used for such problems as determining the short-circuit current in alternating-current power systems. It simulated actual systems by using banks of rheostats to represent generators, transmission lines, and loads. A network analyzer constructed at MIT was characterized as “the most advanced system for transmission network analysis in the world” in the early 1930s. Approximately 40 similar analyzers were built for use by electric utility companies, manufacturers, and engineering schools.



A new phase of sophistication and complexity was achieved by MIT's differential analyzer. It reportedly weighed approximately 18 tons and had the capability of solving differential equations with up to 18 variables. It employed numerous small electric motors, which drove gears and rotating shafts to simulate actual power or electronic devices and systems. A professor at Boston College, F. Malcom Gager, and John B. Russell of Columbia University were permitted to use the MIT differential analyzer in an investigation of a four-element vacuum tube known as the dynatron. In a paper published by the IRE in December 1936, they noted that the machine could solve differential equations with nonlinear coefficients including higher order equations of considerable complexity. They had used it to obtain both transient and steady-state solutions including the amplitude of oscillations and the harmonic output of the tube. They credited Bush for his interest and suggestions.

A differential analyzer patterned after the one at MIT was constructed at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering, University of Pennsylvania, in the early 1930s. Interestingly, the Moore School machine was funded as a relief project by the Civil Works Administration and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. It provided employment for 120 people during its construction, the designers having been encouraged to maximize the “ratio of labor cost to material cost.” John G. Brainerd and Cornelius N. Weygandt used the machine to produce data for an IRE paper published in June 1936 on “Unsymmetrical Self-Excited Oscillations in Certain Simple Nonlinear Systems.” Brainerd later directed a group at the University of Pennsylvania, including John W. Mauchly (Fig. 3) and J. Presper Eckert (Fig. 4), which completed the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) in 1946. The ENIAC generally is considered to have been the progenitor of general-purpose digital electronic computers.

Figure 3
Fig. 3. John W. Mauchly. (Courtesy of IEEE History Center.)
Figure 4
Fig. 4. J. Presper Eckert. (Courtesy of IEEE History Center.)

Another electrical engineer who made effective use of the differential analyzer was Edith Clarke (1883–1959). She worked for the General Electric Company, where she became an expert in the analysis of electric power systems. She became the first woman to publish an AIEE paper in 1926. She made significant contributions to the development of the method of symmetrical components in the analysis of polyphase power transmission. She presented an AIEE paper in 1931 on the use of symmetrical components to treat two or more simultaneous faults on a three-phase system. She noted that the MIT network analyzer had facilitated the analysis. In 1938, she was coauthor with C. N. Weygandt of the Moore School and Charles Concordia of General Electric of an AIEE paper on the effect of damper windings on voltage surges produced by unbalanced faults. They stated that the differential analyzer had enabled them to calculate a wide variation in parameters, which would not have been feasible without the machine.



Bush was appointed a vice-president and dean of engineering at MIT in 1932. The AIEE selected him as the recipient of the Lamme Medal in 1935 “for his development of methods and devices for application of mathematical analysis to problems of electrical engineering.” He was appointed to the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics in 1939. Also in 1939, he left MIT to become president of the Carnegie Institute in Washington, D.C.



Bush emerged as a strong advocate of creating a centralized committee of scientists to coordinate war-related research. He was rewarded by being appointed by President Roosevelt to head the National Defense Research Committee in 1940. Other members included the president of MIT, the president of Harvard, the president of the National Academy of Sciences, and the dean of engineering of the California Institute of Technology. In May 1941, Bush was named head of the newly formed Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD). The OSRD arranged federal research contracts with universities and industrial research laboratories. It played a central role in the creation of the Manhattan Project to develop nuclear weapons. The OSRD also established the Radiation Laboratory at MIT, which developed radar systems, and the Radio Research Laboratory at Harvard for the development of electronic countermeasures equipment.

When the war ended, Bush returned to the Carnegie Institute, where he was an outspoken advocate of continued support of scientific research by the government. As part of his campaign, he authored a book entitled Science: The Endless Frontier in 1945. His persistence was rewarded by the creation of the National Science Foundation in 1950. He ended his tenure at Carnegie Institute in 1955 and returned to MIT, where he became chairman of the MIT Corporation in 1957. He received the National Medal of Science in 1964. He served on the board of directors of several companies, including the American Telephone and Telegraph Company and the Merck Company. He died on June 20, 1974, in Belmont, MA, at age 84.▪


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