Cyberspace Web





Enter the web.


Leonardo da Vinci would have achieved much more had he lived at a different period of time in history. He might have appreciated a time machine as a birthday present probably much more than the rest of us would, since he had the software (his numerous designs and discoveries) although he desperately lacked the hardware (the technology required to realize his designs or to utilize his discoveries in practical devices). His research in four dimensional space-time and multi-gigawatt energy sources was less than satisfactory, however, so it's doubtful whether he could have built a time machine during his own lifetime. Seeing as how, as of this writing, human technology has yet to invent a device enabling one to travel through time, the use of the word 'doubtful' in the previous sentence may well be replaced by 'highly doubtful'. Nevertheless, Leonardo da Vinci found himself 'ahead of his time', and by some unlikely coincidence, so did Vannevar Bush.

The author hates stating the obvious, as most readers hate reading it. Anyone remotely familiar with Bush's work now expects this text to start talking about the Memex, and the Internet, and possibly about hypertextuality, and hyperreality, and the concept of the Renaissance Man, and decentralization, and how it all ties together in one delightfully snug knot. Painfully obvious, yes?

The author finds contradicting expectations and refraining from stating the obvious equally enjoyable, therefore the above discussion will be relegated to a linked lexia.

The other main reason that Bush was ahead of his time, however, is just as fascinating and possibly just as philosophically profound since it thrives on a dichotomy that has puzzled leading minds for millennia: The analog versus the binary, the problem of dealing with the black, the white and the gray. This problematic concerns what I regard as one of Bush's two major creations, a device popularly known as the Rockefeller Differential Analyzer.

The differential analyzer constituted perhaps the largest computer design project undertaken until then and most certainly the largest one succesfully completed, surpassed in complexity perhaps only by Charles Babbage's differential engine, which was finally built by the British Science Museum in 1991, as well as his analytical engine, which was designed to incorporate fifty thousand moving parts and which, unfortunately, never saw the light of day. Bush's differential analyzer, on the other hand, was a megalithic device in its own right, a one hundred ton machine with two thousand vacuum tubes and one hundred and fifty motors. Vannevar Bush came up with the idea for such a computer in the early 1920s, and work was completed in 1942 at which point a sizeable team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, funded by the U.S. government, was devoting full-time effort to the project. Bush's vision of promoting engineering by easing the applied mathematics in the field had finally been realized. Each distinct type of problem required painstaking care in coupling the shafts of a large number of disk-and-wheel integrators together in various ways, although the same problem could be solved for different conditions in under an hour. The "manual labor" associated with solving many quite similar instances of the same problem had finally been rendered obsolete. Bush proclaimed that his computer would "mark the beginning of a new era in mechanized calculus" although it immediately became classified information in order to maintain national security during the ongoing World War II.

So far, it seems like the perfect success story, doesn't it? Where's the catch? Why should Vannevar Bush be regarded as 'ahead of his time' when he appears to have delivered the right device at a time when it was needed most?

This seems like one of those moments when history sits back and enjoys the rather amusing anti-climax which must be rather humiliating for those unfortunate enough to be involved in it. Yes, everything seemed to be going ridiculously well for Bush and his brainchild until the end of the war. Unfortunately, as the 1950s rolled around and the differential analyzer finally emerged from secrecy, it turned out that the machine was already obsolete. Digital computers had become technologically, as well as economically, viable. The new breed of high-speed digital computers simply overtook the analog differential analyzer. No one was going to give old Rocky a second look anymore.

Some experts attribute the fall of the differential analyzer to a change in mentality. Bush, they observe, represented a kind of engineering that was in contact with the workshop. His computer was made up of complex mechanical and electrical elements. It thought the way prewar engineers thought - in physical, graphical terms. The modern digital computer, they further point out, speaks in a mathematical language to the more abstract and mathematical breed of postwar engineers. Bush's creation was more of a thrown-together contraption rather than a clean-cut and discretely defined design, and that's why, they claim, Bush failed.

Although I acknowledge the fact that Vannevar Bush did not succeed remarkably with his differential analyzer, I attribute his failure to the unfortunate set of temporal coordinates he happened to be situated at when the idea of an automated calculus engine occured to him. After all, his description of the Memex defines a machine that is hardly less analog than his analyzer, with dry photography and a pen constituting the input devices while microfilm provides storage and output. Yet, few would argue that the Memex is indeed a highly revolutionary idea. I would assert that Bush was one of those people who knew exactly what he wanted, and used the best that his contemporary technology offered in order to realize his vision, much like Leonardo da Vinci was, except for the fact that in the case of the latter, contemporary technology constituted a contradiction in terms. Bush's vision of automated computing devices and hypertextual information retrieval and authorship have both been realized, which attests to his genius.

Perhaps the most amusing aspect of this whole story is the fact that Bush foresaw his failure. In his essay As We May Think published in 1945, at which point the differential analyzer still seemed a bright idea, Bush wrote:

Babbage, even with his remarkably generous support for his time, could not produce his great arithmetical machine. His idea was sound enough, but construction and maintenance costs were then too heavy. Had a Pharaoh been given detailed and explicit designs of an automobile, and had he understood them completely, it would have taxed the resources of his kingdom to have fashioned the thousands of parts for a single car, and that car would have broken down on the first trip to Giza.

Vannevar Bush was so far ahead of his time, he even foresaw that he was going to turn out to be ahead of his time.

Leonardo da Vinci would have been proud.