A Forgotten Hero of American Industry
After seeing it recommended by numerous people, I decided to start reading the book Loonshots, by Safi Bahcall. Bahcall is a physicist as well as an entrepreneur, which allows him to beautifully compare business organizations to the physical world, and how tiny changes can drastically alter the structures of both.
I’d highly recommend the book to anyone interested in the details of how and why this occurs. But today I want to talk about an individual in the book, Vannevar Bush. You probably don’t know who he is, but Bush has impacted your life as much as any American in the past century. He, along with a few others, created the research/capitalist partnership that allowed the United States to foster the important inventions of the 20th century. The transistor, GPS, microwaves, radar, email, the internet, and even Google can be traced back the structure put in place by Vannevar Bush.
Who Was Vannevar Bush?
Bush was born in Massachusetts in 1890, went to Tuft’s college, and got a joint doctorate degree in electrical engineering from MIT and Harvard. During WWI he made his foray into national research, working on detecting submarines using the Earth’s magnetic field.
We’ll get into his vital importance during WWII, but I would be reminisced to not list the astonishing amount of work Bush did in his early years. He built a thermostatic switch, was a co-founder of Raytheon, built an analog computer that solved differential equations, and became the dean of engineering at MIT.
By the late 1930s, Bush knew all-to-well of a problem that had crippled the development of technology in the United States: a lack of cooperation between scientists and the military. At this point, in 1940, the Nazi’s military was far more advanced than the United States, which allowed them to destroy any-and-all Allied ships on the Atlantic coast with their infamous U-boats. From Loonshots:
“Allied losses to U-bats rose rapidly, from 750,000 tons of cargo in 1939 to 4.3 million tons in 1941. Every month, U-boats were sinking ships faster than the allies could build them. And the losses kept mounting.”
Bush went straight to FDR and asked for the creation of the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) to accelerate the creation of military technology to combat the Germans. The president responded to the proposal with a famous note with just “OK — FDR” written on it. Vannevar Bush got what he wanted: a collaboration between science and the military. Now he had the monumental task of getting the two to work together in harmony.
A Balancing Act
Bahcall uses the creation of the NDRC and later when it transitioned into becoming the OSRD (Office of Scientific Research and Development, which also helped mass-produce penicillin) to illustrate the proper way organizations in different phases should work together. He compares it to a bathtub at 32 degrees Fahrenheit:
“Imagine bringing that bathtub to the brink of freezing. A little bit one way or the other and the whole thing freezes or liquefies. But right on the cusp, blocks of ice coexist with pockets of liquid. The coexistence of two phases, on the edge of a phase transition, is called phase separation. The phases break apart – but stay connected.”
This dynamic equilibrium is what Bush had to achieve with the military (ice) and the scientists (liquid water). The two groups needed to work in harmony, with the researchers’ ingenuity focusing on products that the organizational behemoth (the military) could use productively at scale. Bush, after many failed attempts, was successful in building this harmony, a crucial step in bringing down the U-boats and the allied success in WWII.
Bahcall sums up this ideal organizational structure eloquently: “the two phases must break apart while staying connected.” Many other successful organizations have created this dynamic equilibrium. Steve Jobs, through arduous trial and error, was eventually able to build Apple into the beast it is today by combining the liquid water (Steve Wozniak and other engineers) and ice (business leaders, like Tim Cook) into a dynamic equilibrium.
Bush’s Magnum Opus
Bush’s most important contribution to shaping the future of America was a report he wrote for the president titled Science, and Endless Frontier. In it, he chronicles how and why the government should fund scientific research for our renowned private and public university system.
He prophetically claimed that in order to be the leaders in scientific and technological discovery, we needed to nurture a system that would attract talent from around the globe (doctorate students) to U.S. universities. Then, some of these students would take their discoveries and build entire industries right on American soil.
“Progress in the war against disease depends upon a flow of new scientific knowledge. New products, new industries, and more jobs require continuous additions to knowledge of the laws of nature, and the application of that knowledge to practical purposes. Similarly, our defense against aggression demands new knowledge so that we can develop new and improved weapons. This essential, new knowledge can be obtained only through basic scientific research.”
It took a lot of legislative slogging, but eventually, in 1950, the National Science Foundation (NSF) was enacted into law. Now, in 2018, the NSF funds approximately 25% of all research for American colleges and universities, and in 2018 had a budget of $7.8 billion. It is the major fundraiser of mathematics, computer science, and economic research in the United States.
The internet, nanotechnologies, web browsers, CAD/CAM software, data compression, doppler radar, and countless other discoveries were made on U.S. soil because of funding from the NSF. Trillions of dollars in wealth have been created because of these technologies, all while enhancing and saving millions of lives. And, thanks to the vision of Vannevar Bush, most of it was created in the United States.
Disclosure: The author is not a financial adviser, and may have an interest in the companies talked about.