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Author: Kregg M. Fehr
Title: Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century (G. Pascal Zachary)
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
April 2000

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Source: Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century (G. Pascal Zachary)
Kregg M. Fehr

vol. 3, no. 1, April 2000
Article Type: Book Review

Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century

G. Pascal Zachary , Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999), 518 pp., contents, notes, b & w photos, $22.00 pb.

Nuclear weapons, digital computers, the Internet, the military-industrial complex—these devices and systems have exerted defining influences on the modern history of humankind. An individual connected to the birth or the continuing growth of any item on the aforementioned list would merit a close look from historians. Dr. Vannevar Bush is tied to each subject. For years Bush was a strong and often unyielding force in the politics of science and war, a person who commanded respect in Washington, D.C., and a man who at times inspired awe in the general populace. Hailed during World War II as "the man who may win or lose the war" and referred to in the late twentieth century as "the grand old man of science," Vannevar Bush was the dreamer and the organizer, the technocrat behind many of the technologies that have shaped the human experience during the last several decades.

G. Pascal Zachary has undertaken the monumental task of detailing Bush's life and evaluating his legacy. Zachary's prose is engaging; his textual organization, orderly; but it is the carefully substantiated logic of his analysis that renders his work a success. Pascal's Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century resurrects the lost art of biography. This book is worthy of emulation.

Zachary faced a difficult challenge even when attempting to chronicle Vannevar Bush's extensive and distinguished record of service to the scientific community and to the United States government. Bush was a graduate of MIT and, later, a faculty member of that elite institution. He presided over both the Carnegie Institute and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. The individual most responsible for securing the creation of the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC), he headed the NDRC until it was absorbed into the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD). Like the NDRC, the OSRD was devoted to the military exploitation of the United States' civilian scientists. Bush chaired the office from its inception in 1941 to its dissolution in 1947. While chairman of OSRD, he pushed to completion projects that forever altered warfare: radar, the proximity fuse, and the atomic bomb.

Bush's handiwork affected civilian life as well. By ushering in the Atomic Age, he contributed to the sense of insecurity that settled over the world during the second half of the twentieth century. Yet, Bush also receives acclaim for his role in the dawning of the Information Era. His differential analyzers—powerful mechanical calculators—laid the groundwork for later digital computers. With his vision of what he called the "memex," a machine which could store and retrieve information, and which boasted a screen and a keyboard, he predicted the invention of the personal computer. In some of his meditations, Bush even described a primitive version of the Internet, earning him today the title, "the sage of cyberspace."

Zachary could have simply ticked off, one by one, Bush's offices, inventions, and predictions. Instead, he argues persuasively, that Bush is most important for his attempts to alter relationships between civilian scientists and the military. When World War II began, scientists found it quite difficult to attract the attention of the military. A technocrat and a committed progressive who believed that the United States could prevent future wars by funding technological improvements, Bush marshaled civilian scientists and engineers for service to his country. He demanded that his staff develop devices that could be used in the present war, and he insisted that the military apprise him of its most urgent needs at the war front. An imperious leader, he continued to expand the role of his office throughout the war. He sent scientists and engineers to combat zones in order to determine which extant technologies were obsolete and to witness the performance of the OSRD's latest inventions. Each time OSRD produced an item that contributed to the Allied war effort, Bush was able to exert more leverage in the scientific community-military establishment relationship. During the waning months of WW II, civilian scientists were permitted to offer ideas on strategy, and when the conflict concluded, experts remained in great demand by the U.S. government.

While Zachary paints a portrait of a Vannevar Bush whose accomplishments were innumerable, he does not succumb to the temptation to ignore or minimize his subject's faults. Abrupt in his mannerisms, forceful in confrontations, and convinced of the superiority of his ideas, Bush made many enemies. His supporters outnumbered his enemies during WW II, but once the conflict ended, the balance shifted, and Bush found himself marginalized. The military-industrial complex marched on into an "endless frontier" of cooperative support, scientific exploration, and technological innovation, but it left one of its founders and greatest proponents behind.

Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century is an exceptional, sound piece. Zachary proves a master of the literary craft and a well-trained, insightful historian. Thoughtful, yet written in an engaging, reader-friendly style, Endless Frontier will no doubt win large audiences in both the scholarly and general populations.

Kregg M. Fehr
Wayland Baptist University, Lubbock Campus