From Bacon to Bush (Vannevar, Not G.W.): Common Ground between Useful Knowledge and Red Brick Institutions

By Storella, Elaine | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

From Bacon to Bush (Vannevar, Not G.W.): Common Ground between Useful Knowledge and Red Brick Institutions


Storella, Elaine, Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


Introduction

Historically speaking, connections between useful knowledge and red brick institutions were advocated by Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) as early as 1620 in his Novum organon. The text and the title were originally written in the language of the learned at the time. In the English translation, the Cambridge University graduate, jurist, and member of the court of Elizabeth I wrote: "The true and legitimate goal of the sciences is to endow human life with new discoveries and resources.... Just let man recover the right over nature which belongs to him by God's gift, and give it scope; right reason and sound religion will govern its use." (1) According to Bacon's The New Method, useful knowledge is the link between science and religion.

Some three hundred years later, after earning his doctorate in engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1916, Vannevar Bush joined its Electrical Engineering Department and later served as Vice President and Dean of Engineering at MIT. In 1922, he co-founded Raytheon Company. During NASA's 1969 Apollo Mission, the guidance and navigation system designed by MIT and built by Raytheon made it possible for the first man (Neil Armstrong) to walk on the Moon and return safely to Earth. (2) In his 1999 biography, Endless Frontier: Yannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century, G. Pascal Zachary wrote that even though Bush had "designed the world's most powerful mechanical calculators in the 1930s, laying the groundwork for the advent of the digital computer and the information revolution," he is probably best known for his World War II service as Director of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Office of Scientific Research and Development. "At the age of 57, he personified military research in America and was the most politically powerful inventor in America since Benjamin Franklin." However, it was his post-War, 1945 report "Science--the Endless Frontier" that encouraged public funding for university scientific research in the United States. And, that same year, in his Atlantic Monthly article "As We May Think," Bush "predicted that new technologies would someday deliver an unprecedented ability to receive and manage information, thus improving the quality of life in untold ways." According to his biographer, Bush's "words contained the germ of what would become the Internet and won him a posthumous reputation as the sage of cyberspace" (Zachary 1999, 2-3). (3) Although never built, the design Vannevar Bush called "Memex" encouraged the construction of the World Wide Web's hypertext technology that makes browsing the Internet faster, more interactive. "Bush laid the blame on librarians for the growing inability to find relevant information swiftly.... Rather than fixed indexes, Bush envisioned flexible ones, along the lines of the 'associative trails' that he described in his "As We May Think" article." As the author explained, "[t]hese dynamic indexes would evolve on the fly, becoming personalized. The building block of this new organizing scheme was the 'key word.' Each document would contain at least one key word and probably more" (Zachary 1999, 272). (4)

What Vannevar Bush called "associative trails," we can access via hypertext links to "useful knowledge" and "red brick institutions." Although the latter were not incorporated until the nineteenth century, they had been envisioned two hundred years earlier when the Englishman Sir Francis Bacon proposed "the establishment of state institutions that would be dedicated to improvements in the crafts and trades" (Dear 2001, 57). As early as 1605, in his Advancement of Learning, Bacon introduced his useful knowledge campaign. Fifteen years later, in The New Method, he would denounce the Aristotelian natural philosophy curriculum taught at the universities in his day for its "contemplative ideal.... Instead, he held that natural philosophy, properly understood, should be directed towards achieving improvements in the well-being of humanity--what we would nowadays think of as technological advances. …

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