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Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century [Paperback]

G Pascal Zachary
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

8 July 1999
As a young professor at MIT in the 1920s, Vannevar Bush (1890-1974) did seminal work on analog computing and was a cofounder of Raytheon, whose initial success was based on long-lasting radio tubes. But he is best known for his role in Washington during World War II: as President Roosevelt's advisor, he organized the Manhattan Project and oversaw the work of 6,000 civilian scientists designing new weapons. His 1945 report "Science -- The Endless Frontier" spurred the creation of a system of public support for university research that endures to this day.Although he helped to give rise to the military-industrial complex, Bush was a skeptical observer of the interplay between science and politics. He warned against the dangers of an arms race and led a failed effort to halt testing of the hydrogen bomb. This balanced and gracefully written biography brings to life an American original and his times.

Product details

  • Paperback: 522 pages
  • Publisher: MIT Press; MIT Press ed edition (8 July 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0262740222
  • ISBN-13: 978-0262740227
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 15.6 x 2.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,607,497 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

"Deeply informed and insightful, Zachary has thoroughly captured the spirit of Bush and his times." -- Thomas P. Hughes, The New York Times Book Review "This fascinating biography...will probably become the standard work on Bush and remain so for years to come." -- Roger Bridgman, The New Scientist

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Now in Paperback!
As a young professor at MIT in the 1920s, Vannevar Bush (1890-1974) did seminal work on analog computing and was a cofounder of Raytheon, whose initial success was based on long-lasting radio tubes. But he is best known for his role in Washington during World War II: as President Roosevelt's advisor, he organized the Manhattan Project and oversaw the work of 6,000 civilian scientists designing new weapons. His 1945 report "Science- The Endless Frontier" spurred the creation of a system of public support for university research that endures to this day.

Although he helped to give rise to the military-industrial complex, Bush was a skeptical observer of the interplay between science and politics. He warned against the dangers of an arms race and led a failed effort to halt testing of the hydrogen bomb. This balanced and gracefully written biography brings to life an American original and his times.

G. Pascal Zachary, a Senior Writer at the WALL STREET JOURNAL, is the author of SHOWSTOPPER! (1994), a history of the creation of Microsoft's Windows NT.


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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
A very interesting and thorough biography of Vannevar Bush, who more than any other individual is responsible (for good or for ill) for the shape of today's scientific establishment. Well-written and engaging, with lots of interesting historical tidbits and good insight on the personalities involved. Excellent!
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Amazon.com: 4.9 out of 5 stars  7 reviews
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Vannevar like beaver 5 July 2000
By Harvey M. Solomon - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This is a very well written and entertaining book about a scientific administrator who played a major effort in organizing the technical responses required to anticipate and successfully meet the challenges of WWII. His skillful analysis, technical comprehension and political astuteness not only provided outstanding leadership at the time but shaped the intractions of goverment, industry and the academic community in such a fashion as to remain intact to this time. One comes awawy with an enormous respect for Dr. Bush. He must have been one tough character and difficult to deal with but he got the jobs done. It is a pity that his battles with Admiral Ernest King have, to my knowledge, never been documented. The issues they disagreed about were not trivial and their interactions must have been awesome. I read this book shortly after completing Tycho's Island and the similarity between the two men and the administrative issues they dealt with is both striking and illuminating.
Good men are hard to find and good books about them deserve our attention.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Biography of great scientific leader and public servant 10 May 2006
By F. R Anscombe - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Zachary deserves great credit for writing a book that offers many virtues and lessons of lasting relevance. Because the author's commitment is worthy of his subject, this book should have timeless value. The roles for science and technology and how best to harness them for prosperity and for security to enable the preservation of peace are questions which transcend any particular time.

The subtitle, Engineer of the American Century, is justified. Bush contributed to American society in many ways. He was a fecund, tireless inventor, helping launch Raytheon Corporation. He was dedicated to boosting the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and thereby strengthening society through teaching and seeking practical knowledge. He was a pioneer and convenor of advances in computing.

Clear-mindedly appreciating the gathering evil of Nazi Germany, Bush decided to do something, as typical. He left MIT and got to Washington as head of the Carnegie Institution. Though a Republican, he persuaded President Franklin Roosevelt that those who were technically educated needed to be harnessed within a National Defense Research Committee, in service to their nation's needs. By helping harness the extraordinary abilities of civilian and academic technologists to serve their nation in meeting the challenges of World War II, Bush helped unleash a cornucopia of inventions and advances in thinking, with extraordinary economic legacies (computing, electronics, medicine, radar).

A few words from Zachary:
--Bush's "was a life not of looking back, but of charging ahead."
--He had a "commitment to excellence and integrity that reinforced his belief in the power of one person to make a difference."
--"Bush shared Eisenhower's unease about the alliance between academia, the military, and industry"
--"The proliferation of nuclear weapons, the rise of environmental hazards, and the evident political partisanship of many scientists - all combined to engender a cynicism in the public about the aims and evidence of science."

Several other books of possible interest in relation to the contributions of technologists:
Philip Taubman, Secret Empire (2003)
James Phinney Baxter, Scientists Against Time (1946)
Biographies of Edwin Land
James Killian, Sputniks, Scientists, and Eisenhower (1977). Killian was a 1950s Bush, down to earth and his book is movingly endowed with wisdom.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent biography of an important but little known man. 6 May 1998
By Glenn H. Reynolds - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
A very interesting and thorough biography of Vannevar Bush, who more than any other individual is responsible (for good or for ill) for the shape of today's scientific establishment. Well-written and engaging, with lots of interesting historical tidbits and good insight on the personalities involved. Excellent!
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Essential reading for every U.S. high school student 4 Oct 2012
By Tom Brody - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
ENDLESS FRONTIER VANNEVAR BUSH, by G.P. Zachary, is a 518 page book, which includes a list of abbreviations (pages 409-410), footnotes (pages 411-484), and a generous number of glossy black and white photographs (16 pages of photos). The photos include a group pose of electrical engineering faculty at MIT (including Dr.Bush), separate photos of Dr. Bush with various inventions ((1) Profile tracer; (2) Product intergraph; (3) Differential analyzer; and (4) Hydrofoil), and photos of Dr. Bush with various luminaries, such as Karl Compton, Orville Wright, James Conant, General Leslie Groves, Robert Oppenheimer, and President Truman.

WRITING STYLE. The writing style is excellent, in that it rarely digresses into narratives of a personal nature, or to provide disclosures of popular culture of the day. However, on page 24 we do find information of a personal nature: "In the spring of 1911, he [Vannevar Bush] suffered an appendicitis. He needed an operation and missed a semester. Bedridden for weeks during one stretch, he found consolation in his imagination." Pages 47-48 provide details of the funeral of Dr. Bush's father. Page 59 details Dr. Bush's love for smoking pipes. Pages 139-141 concern Dr. Bush's wife, Phoebe. We read that, "Among strangers, Phoebe could be moody, at times, dour and aloof, but Bush excused her faults." These little tidbits are quite welcome. After all, this is a biography, isn't it?

HEART OF THIS BOOK. In my opinion, the heart of the book resides at pages 123-139 and 159-183. In my opinion, this part of the book should be reproduced verbatum (with permission of course) in standard high school history books. These pages concern the radio proximity fuze, radar, homing torpedoes, and magnetic airborn detection of submarines. Proximity fuzes are radio-controlled detonators, which initiate explosion when the bomb is close to an airplane, and not merely at a pre-determined time or when the bomb actually contacts the airplane. Bush's work on radar involved converting England's magnetron to a production model called, SCR-584. In short, U.S. electrical equipment needed to be changed from long wavelength to short wavelength, in order to be compatible with England's magnetron. Bush's most important contributions took the form of changing the relationships between: (1) Private research laboratories; (2) Military research laboratories; (3) Civilian input into military strategy; and (4) Federal funding for research. The next five paragraphs (see below) describe what is found at pages 123-139 and 159-183. The most dramatic aspect of these pages, and perhaps in the entire book, is how Dr. Bush overcame the resistance of Admiral Ernest King to using radar and to using the proximity fuze. In noting the fact that Dr. Bush has only two patents to his name, I am left with the impression that Dr. Bush's greatest contribution to humanity was ensuring that radar and the proximity fuze were developed in a timely manner, where a major detail of this contribution was overcoming a certain roadblock known as, "Ernest King." Without Vannevar Bush, it is quite possible that everybody in France, England, and other European countries would currently be subjected to a dictatorship headquartered in Germany (this is not a joke).

NDRC. In June 15, 1940, Bush created the NDRC. The NDRC's goal was to cause cooperation with the army and navy with civilians involved in weapons research. The NDRC reduced the influence of technically incompetant military leaders. Another problem that needed to be overcome by the NDRC, under Dr. Bush's leadership, was the historic distrust between the army and the navy, e.g., refusing to share information with each other. Another hurdle was Harold Brown (director of Naval Research Lab) who was jealous of the power that Roosevelt gave to Dr. Bush. Bush's tactic was to get friendly with Harold Brown's rival. Harold Brown's rival was the Bureau of Ships. Also, Bush persuaded Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, to select Prof. Jerome Hunsaker of MIT to oversee the Navy's research program. Frank Knox's earlier career was with the navy. Dr. Bush's connection with MIT was that one of Bush's main efforts in his career was to set up the radar laboratory ("Rad Lab") at MIT, and to attract countless millions of dollars in federal funding to MIT. The end-result was Harold Brown's loss of power.

OSRD. In May 1941, Roosevelt created OSRD. OSRD had more reliable funding than NDRC. NDRC was the main operating unit of OSRD. Bush served as director and grants manager of OSRD. OSRD had a much better patent attorney than NDRC. Bush set standards for deciding on direct costs versus overhead costs, for contracts with non-profits and with industry. Bush caused U.S. military to switch from long wavelength radar to be compatible with England's newly invented magnetron, which used short wavelength radar.

RAD LAB. Dr. Bush created the Rad Lab at MIT, and made certain that the Rad Lab was located at MIT, rather than at Carnegie Institute, as was preferred by Alfred Loomis, or at Bell Labs, as was preferred by Frank Jewett. My initial reason for reading ENDLESS FRONTIER by G.P. Zachary, was by way of Robert Buderi's book on the history of radar. Robert Buderi's book discloses Vannevar Bush's role in setting up the Rad Lab, though Buderi's book focuses more on the inventive aspects of radar, for example, the inventions of Watson-Watt, and on the nuts and bolts of anti-submarine warfare, for example, by a description of Leigh Lights used by the Allies for hunting U-boats.

BUSH CALLS FOR TECHNOCRATS TO BE EQUALS WITH MILITARY BRASS IN SETTING MILITARY STRATEGY. Roosevelt agreed with Dr. Bush's call for input by radar scientists into military strategy. Roosevelt agreed with Bush, and Roosevelt created the JOINT COMMITTEE ON NEW WEAPONS AND EQUIPMENT, with Bush in charge. The Committee's mission was to educate the military's top brass. Dr. Bush's greatest challenge took the form of Admiral Ernest King, who was traditionally skeptical of new gadgets, adn who dismissed radar as being useless. (From this book, it is apparent that Ernest King could reasonably be characterized as one of Adolf Hitler's greatest assets.) According to this book, "Bush spent hours in closed-door sessions dutifully tutoring a Navy admiral and Army general, but his efforts . . . had scant practical effect." We read that, "King's rigidness appalled Bush." Eventually, Bush persuaded Julius Furer (research coordinator of the navy) that Ernest King was mistaken in dismissing the proxmity fuze and in dismissing radar. Als, eventually Bush persuaded Henry Stimson (an attorney and Secretary of War) to put microwave radar on many U.S. Air Force planes. Bush and Stimson each spoke to Roosevelt, complaining about Ernest King. Eventually, in May 1943, Dr. Bush prevailed, and the Tenth Fleet was created. The Tenth Fleet consolidated all anti-submarine warfare in the Atlantic under one authority. Thus, it was the case that the navy was converted to radar. The result was a turning point in the war. Previously, hundreds of allied ships were sunk by German U-boats. But within months of adopting radar, the U-boats were in retreat.

PROXIMITY FUZE. We read that the proximity fuze screwed on the front of artillery shells, and caused an explosion when near the target. Most of the work was done by Merle Tuve of Carnegie Institution, using ideas from British physicists. Merle Tuve perfected the fuze so that it was the size of a fingertip, so that it could survive rotation at hundreds of times a second, and so that the battery of the fuze was kept off until the shell was airborne. The navy held off production until the device worked at a success rate of at least 50%. In January 1943, the fuze saw its first combat action. Bush faced another hurdle. The US military, especially Ernest King, agreed to use the proximity fuze only at sea, and never over land (for fear of reverse engineering by the enemy). Eventually, in October 1944, the US military agreed to use the proximity fuze over land and, in December 1944, it was used in Howitzers against German airplanes. At this point in the book, we read that, "Bush's reputation was growing . . . the press presented Bush in more pragmatic and appealing terms: He was a military asset and a darn important one." We read that in the April 3, 1944 issue of TIME MAGAZINE, Bush was "unashamedly lionized." To repeat, in my opinion pages 123-139 and 159-183 of this book should be required reading for every high school student, in part because of its disclosure of engineering advances that enabled the Allies to win the war, but more importantly because of its disclosure of how Dr. Bush overcame "human problems" such as the stubborn piggishness of Ernest King.

OUT OF TOUCH. The final chapters of this book disclose how Dr. Bush became out of touch, as the 1950s progressed. He was out of touch on school integration (page 369), out of touch regarding the US space program (page 390), out of touch regarding the war in Vietnam (page 402), out of touch regarding civilian use of nuclear power (pages 295-309), out of touch in his relations with Truman (page 363), and most unfortunately, out of touch regarding analogue computers versus digital computers (page 400). In the author's words, Bush became, "A hero without a cause, he seemed to be against everything" (page 380).

CRITIQUE. I would have liked a more explicit account of Dr. Bush's role in creating the internet. The book describes Douglas Engelbart (pages 267, 398), and Engelbart's relation with Dr. Bush. But the book does not mention the connections that Bush and Engelbart had with the invention and perfection of the internet. WEAVING THE WEB, by Tim Berners-Lee, as well as other books on the internet, mention the roles of Dr. Bush and of Douglas Engelbart in the creation of the internet. Also, I would have liked the book to include a list of Dr. Bush's patents. I just checked Dr. Bush's patents with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. To my dismay, Dr. Bush only has two patents. Both of these patents are assigned to MIT. I was expecting him to have at least 50 patents to his name. Oh well! FIVE STARS to this fine book.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Vannevar Bush a key player in American military strength 1 April 2006
By galloamericanus - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
More than one person has written on this page that Vannevar Bush is "little known", "forgotten", etc. I am only 54 years old, but I remember seeing Bush's name in print many, many times while growing up. He was always described as crucial to American military and technological supremacy since 1943 or so. A few of his accomplishments: He mobilized American science and engineering during WWII. His leadership was crucial to the Manhattan project. His differential analyzer led to MIT's Lincoln Labs playing an important role in the rise of information technology. He was Claude Shannon's teacher.
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