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«Scientists against Time»

by Elena Giulia Rossi |     30 October 2013

1945-Vannevar-Bush-TIME

The Official Reports of the Office of Scientific Research and Development «Scientists Against Time» restores a piece of history to us regarding scientific progress during World War II when causes of force majeur provided motivation for the most spectacular discoveries which were later improved and implemented for a civil environment during peacetime.

 The Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) was founded in 1941 in the United States to coordinate scientific research during World War II. The agency was directed by Vannevar Bush, a scientist who was renowned for having anticipated the prototype of the function of a computer in its hypertext frame. Vannevar Bush is the author of a popular essay entitled As We May Think in which he divulged the theoretic bases of the «Memex». Memex was a theoretic model conceived as a device for registering and storing one’s information, a model of mnemonic implementation with the help of a machine and a kind of mechanized desk-shaped private library. Its function was prompted by the biological model of cerebral neuron functions and the way they register and transmit information. The essay was published in the «Atlantic Monthly» in 1945 and republished in the popular magazine «Life», showing sketches illustrating the proposed Memex and its functions for the very first time.

«Scientists Against Time» is the story of the fast rise of weapons that took place while acquired scientific notions were being directly applied to radar, submarine warfare, aerial warfare, artillery fuse trigger explosions on objectives and the atom bomb. The story is narrated by historian James Phinney Baxter with an introduction by Vannevar Bush who accompanies a summary of the report with a paean to democracy and freedom. Bush explains, «This is the story of the evolution of war weapons but it is also the story of human relations as a whole in a free society, which is the most important thing.»

“Scientists Against Time” was published a year after the aforementioned As We May Think was. This all takes us back a few steps into the past to the presuppositions necessary for bringing Vannevar Bush’s vision of the Memex into being. This time, however, the necessity originated in peacetime as a need to preserve the memory of wartime discoveries and to make them useful in the process of the evolution of civilization.

James Phinney Baxter, Scienza in lotta con il tempo Bompiani Milano 1950 (Original title: Scientists Against Time)

Images

1 (cover) Memex, drawing for the article , As We May Thinkby Vannevar Bush in «Life» (settembre 1945)

2 Vannevar Bush, photo via

3 cover of James Phinney Baxter, Scienza contro il tempo, Bompiani, Milano 1950, Italian edition of Scientists Against Time

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