As We May Think

Vannevar Bush essay from 1945 proposing the Memex.

== Excerpts ==

"This has not been a scientist’s war; it has been a war in which all have had a part. The scientists, burying their old professional competition in the demand of a common cause, have shared greatly and learned much. It has been exhilarating to work in effective partnership. Now, for many, this appears to be approaching an end. What are the scientists to do next?"


"Science has provided the swiftest communication between individuals; it has provided a record of ideas and has enabled man to manipulate and to make extracts from that record so that knowledge evolves and endures throughout the life of a race rather than that of an individual"

"there is increased evidence that we are being bogged down today as specialization extends"

"Mendel’s concept of the laws of genetics was lost to the world for a generation because his publication did not reach the few who were capable of grasping and extending it"


"A record, if it is to be useful to science, must be continuously extended, it must be stored, and above all it must be consulted"

"there would be a total factor of 10,000 between the bulk of the ordinary record on books, and its MicroFilm replica. The Encyclopoedia Britannica could be reduced to the volume of a matchbox"


"will the author of the future cease writing by hand or typewriter and talk directly to the record? "

"One can now picture a future investigator in his laboratory. His hands are free, and he is not anchored. As he moves about and observes, he photographs and comments. Time is automatically recorded to tie the two records together. If he goes into the field, he may be connected by radio to his recorder"


"The repetitive processes of thought are not confined, however, to matters of arithmetic and statistics"

"Relief must be secured from laborious detailed manipulation of higher mathematics as well"

"A mathematician is not a man who can readily manipulate figures; often he cannot. He is not even a man who can readily perform the transformation of equations by the use of Calculus. He is primarily an individual who is skilled in the use of Symbolic Logic on a high plane, and especially he is a man of intuitive judgment in the choice of the manipulative processes he employs.

All else he should be able to turn over to his mechanism"


"The scientist, however, is not the only person who manipulates data and examines the world about him by the use of logical processes"

"Whenever logical processes of thought are employed - that is, whenever thought for a time runs along an accepted groove - there is an opportunity for the machine"

"A new symbolism, probably positional, must apparently precede the reduction of mathematical transformations to machine processes"

"we can enormously extend the record; yet even in its present bulk we can hardly consult it"

"The prime action of use is selection, and here we are halting indeed"


"Our ineptitude in getting at the record is largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing. When data of any sort are placed in storage, they are filed alphabetically or numerically, and information is found (when it is) by tracing it down from subclass to subclass. It can be in only one place, unless duplicates are used; one has to have rules as to which path will locate it, and the rules are cumbersome. Having found one item, moreover, one has to emerge from the system and re-enter on a new path.

The human mind does not work that way. It operates by association"

"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"


"AssociatIve indexing, the basic idea of which is a provision whereby any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another. This is the essential feature of the memex. The process of tying two items together is the important thing"

"When the user is building a trail, he names it, inserts the name in his code book, and taps it out on his keyboard"

"any item can be joined into numerous trails"

"Thus he goes, building a trail of many items. Occasionally he inserts a comment of his own, either linking it into the main trail or joining it by a side trail to a particular item"

"He inserts a page of longhand analysis of his own. Thus he builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him"

"he sets a reproducer in action, photographs the whole trail out, and passes it to his friend for insertion in his own memex"


"Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready-made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified. The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities. The patent attorney has on call the millions of issued patents, with familiar trails to every point of his client’s interest. The physician, puzzled by its 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"

"There is a new profession of trail blazers"

"In the outside world, all forms of intelligence, whether of sound or sight, have been reduced to the form of varying currents in an electric circuit in order that they may be transmitted. Inside the human frame exactly the same sort of process occurs. Must we always transform to mechanical movements in order to proceed from one electrical phenomenon to another? It is a suggestive thought, but it hardly warrants prediction without losing touch with reality and immediateness"

"Presumably man’s spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems"

"The applications of science have built man a well-supplied house, and are teaching him to live healthily therein. They have enabled him to throw masses of people against another with cruel weapons. They may yet allow him truly to encompass the great record and to grow in the wisdom of race experience. He may perish in conflict before he learns to wield that record for his true good. Yet, in the application of science to the needs and desires of man, it would seem to be a singularly unfortunate stage at which to terminate the process, or to lose hope as to the outcome" *

Edited: |

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