The Roots of Progress

Highlights from the memoirs of Vannevar Bush

Vannevar Bush—head of military research during WW2, author of “As We May Think” and “Science, the Endless Frontier”—wrote a memoir late in life, Pieces of the Action. It was out of print and hard to obtain for a long time, but Stripe Press has brought it back in a new edition with a foreword from Ben Reinhardt. There’s an Interintellect online salon to discuss it on Aug 6.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the original edition:

On invention

How inventors are like poets:

An invention has some of the characteristics of a poem. Standing alone, by itself, it has no value; that is, no value of a financial sort. This does not mean that inventions—or poems—have no value. It is said that a poet may derive real joy out of making a poem, even if it is never published, even if he does not recite it to his friends, even if it is not a very good poem. No doubt one has to be a poet to understand this. In the same way an inventor can derive real satisfaction out of making an invention, even if he never expects to make a nickel out of it, even if he knows it is a bit foolish, provided he feels it involves ingenuity and insight. An inventor invents because he cannot help it, and also because he gets quiet fun out of doing so. Sometimes he even makes money at it, but not by himself. One has to be an inventor to understand this.

An idea does not an invention make:

One time when I was a young professor at M.I.T. and was also a consulting engineer, I was called in by a chap who ran a considerable business, who told me that he had made a very great invention and wanted me to develop it for him. He had invented a watch which would run without winding; it was to have a little radio receiver in it which would pick up energy from all the broadcasting stations, and this energy would wind the watch. All that I was supposed to do was to take that idea and develop it. I said very little to him about the amount of energy thus receivable and the size of radio sets and so forth. I merely said that I would think it over, and of course I never went near him again. That chap had the concept that the mere formulating of his idea constituted an invention. He is not alone in this misconception.

On a similar theme:

If you wish to invent usefully, you must not attempt to do it in isolation, or to shield yourself from criticism. The world is full of would-be inventors who do just that. They never invent anything worthwhile. During the war many of them were merely annoying, and of course very unhappy, and convinced there was a conspiracy against them.

The value of patents:

A laboratory produces a new drug, say a new synthetic hormone for control of arthritis. The patent can merely recite the chemical structure or the process of making the new material. The company can go ahead and market, without using anyone else’s patent rights. So it can make a profit, and thus justify its large research expenses. Is this good for the country? It certainly is. Since that industry is spending some hundreds of millions of dollars a year on research, we have all sorts of new drugs to cure our ills, to save lives—antibiotics, steroids, vaccines, the whole basis on which the modern physician ministers to our needs. If it were not for the patent system we would not have these blessings to anywhere near the extent that we do now. Government laboratories, valuable though they may be, would not produce them. It takes the profit motive and keen competition to bring them to being. The free enterprise system is not just a nice idea; it is the basis on which we lead the world economy.

Edison’s strengths and weaknesses:

Edison was a very good inventor, a still better promoter, but in some ways a poor experimenter. Some of his experimentation was crude, to say the least. When we talk about the Edisonian method, which means to try everything without any theory to guide you, just hit or miss, we are talking about very poor experimentation. But Edison was such a good promoter that he could advance even with poor experimental data. He had good management, through people that he tied in by his promotion. Moreover, he had the facility of seeing where there was a public demand for something. The combination is what made Edison.

Of all the many inventions Bush witnessed in his life, which one impressed him the most?

Inertial guidance systems are so precise in their action that a submarine can navigate for months under the polar ice and know at all times just where it is. They can be installed in a missile that is fired from a submarine while still submerged, and that will then guide itself unerringly to a distant target. It is the heart of the system that guides an Apollo missile to the moon and back. I know of no technical development for which I have more keen respect than this, and where I have more admiration for the men who accomplished it.

On leadership & management

The NDRC (the original WW2 military research organization) as an “end run” around bureaucracy:

There were those who protested that the action of setting up N.D.R.C. was an end run, a grab by which a small company of scientists and engineers, acting outside established channels, got hold of the authority and money for the program of developing new weapons. That, in fact, is exactly what it was. Moreover, it was the only way in which a broad program could be launched rapidly and on an adequate scale. To operate through established channels would have involved delays—and the hazard that independence might have been lost, that independence which was the central feature of the organization’s success. The one thing that made launching it at all possible was the realization by the President that it was needed.

A leadership episode:

There should never be, throughout an organization, any doubt as to where authority for making decisions resides, or any doubt that they will be promptly made. I remember one time when a section walked into my office and resigned as a body. I still do not know quite what the row was about. So I just told them, “One does not resign in time of war. You chaps get the hell out of here and get back to work, and I will look into it.”

A leadership lesson from Truman:

At a point in the discussion Forrestal made a remark which indicated that we were to make some sort of majority decision, and the President at once picked him up. “Jim, you forget, this is a Cabinet. Each of you will give me his full advice and I will make the decision.” Truman certainly understood what it meant to be President of the United States.

The risk of new recruits:

The Romans called a new recruit a tyro. I extend the definition, for there is no word in English which covers what I have in mind. The tyro is the freewheeler in an organization, who gums up the works because of his arrogant ignorance, often because he filches authority which does not belong to him. He operates because his boss doesn’t know what he is doing, or knows and doesn’t care. He can throw any organization, civilian or military, into confusion. His breed should be exterminated for the good of society.

On just getting the work done:

In no case did I know who the individual inventor was, nor did I care. Moreover, the men in the laboratories did not care either. For one thing, once a problem became clear, the invention, if a useful one, was bound to appear, if not made by one man, then by another. For another thing, in general no one was looking for personal credit. Oh, there were a few with that motivation, on both sides of the water. But the general attitude in laboratories everywhere was, “The hell with the credit, get on with the job.” That attitude was nearly universal, and it was genuine.

Related, the collaborative atmosphere of a well-run laboratory:

All my life I have mixed with all sorts of men. The ones I like best to be with are military men and research men. Just why the former are so much worth knowing appears elsewhere in this book. The research men are pleasant companions for a number of reasons. One is that frank interchange of ideas and information is essential to successful group research and will be found in any well-conducted laboratory. Now that group research is practiced everywhere, this frank interchange, and public opinion regarding it among the group, almost wholly banishes posing, jockeying for position, and evasiveness, and it is a relief to discuss things without them.

On stepping out of the way:

One spring I received a shock. With these two chaps I was putting together a final examination. Suddenly I came to the realization that they knew more about the subject than I did. In some ways this was not strange; they were concentrating on it, and I was getting involved in other things. But it hit me solidly. And right there I decided that I was not going to get in the way of younger men, and that, when the time came that I could not compete genuinely with them, I would get out. I have acted in accord with that decision many times since and, in the process of doing so, have found stimulation in trying to learn new things, relief in not being in competition with younger men, and satisfaction in watching those men succeed without having me as an obstacle.

Bush’s communication style

Bush had a direct, blunt, almost insulting style that actually worked quite well:

General McNarney told me he could take care of Air Force objections, if I could take care of the Navy. So I saw Admiral King. As I have suggested earlier, he was a tough customer. It was well known that he scared his junior officers so thoroughly that often he didn’t get adequate information through them. Characteristically, our discussion opened as follows: King scowled and said, “I have agreed to meet with you, but this is a military question, and it must be decided on a military basis, to which you can hardly contribute.” So I told him. “It is a combined military and technical question, and on the latter you are a babe in arms and not entitled to an opinion.” It was a good start, and the discussion went on from there—and went well.

Another example:

I told them I would do the work if they would pay just my out-of-pocket costs, that M.I.T. would contribute the cost of the overhead, that we would turn the whole thing over to the Navy and wished for neither profit nor credit, and that I wanted a simple contract which provided for just that, with no frills or inconvenient clauses. They soon laid before me a draft contract with all sorts of fancy clauses in it, provisions for accounting, rules regarding employment, and so on. It was brought to my hotel by a pleasant Navy captain. I read it, gave it back to him, told him to tell his boss to go to hell, and started to pack my suitcase. But he was back after a bit with a nice simple contract, and I went back home and started work. I think I still have a copy of that contract, and I do not know how they did it, that is, how they avoided all the constraints that fool legislation had imposed on them. They probably just ignored them and took a chance. It is too late to court-martial anyone about it now.

He was blunt, although not insulting, even with Congress:

One time I was before a committee on a tough technical matter, a Navy problem of some sort. I was none too anxious to testify, for my Navy friends would not be happy to see me rambling about in their backyard, but one has no control over where a committee will head in, if the chairman consents. Toward the end of the hearing a congressman said to me, “Doctor, how do you expect us to understand as complex a technical matter as this sufficiently to pass judgment on it?” I replied, “I don’t,” which alerted any that were taking a mental vacation. So he said, “What do you expect us to do?” I thought a minute and said, “I expect you to follow your usual practice. You will listen to a number of men; you will decide which ones make sense and know their stuff, and you will go along with them. Moreover,” I added, “you are all good judges of men, or you would not be elected.”

But in other contexts, he was deft and subtle:

On another occasion my secretary, Sam Callaway, told me that he wanted me to talk with an old man who was in the outer office. Now Sam was the finest secretary, bar none, that a harassed executive ever had. So when Sam told me to see someone, I did. It turned out that the old man had driven his Model T down from somewhere in the Blue Ridge Mountains to present an idea—I think it was on a way to trap submarines. I listened as he described it in detail, and did it well, with a lot of good sense. Then I told him that we had to be very careful with ideas of that sort, to keep them out of enemy hands. Why, if we were hard at work on that very idea, I could not tell even him about it. Otherwise enemy agents with fake ideas could learn a lot. He agreed heartily, his eyes shone, and I suppose he headed home happy. The idea itself was one we had received dozens of times.

On society, war & politics

The collapse of complex societies:

The more complex a society, the more chance there is that it will get fouled up. If it gets to be complex enough, just one small detail can throw it all out of gear. It is like a television set with a thousand electrical connections arranged to present Mr. Cronkite or Mr. Brinkley for our edification; one wire becomes unhooked and the whole thing goes poof.

On launching the Manhattan Project:

I had no illusion as to the gravity of the decision. I knew that the effort would be expensive, that it might interfere seriously with other war work. But the overriding consideration was this: I had great respect for German science. If a bomb were possible, if it turned out to have enormous power, the result in the hands of Hitler might indeed enable him to enslave the world. It was essential to get there first, if an all-out American effort could accomplish the difficult task.

Bush was initially against the Space Race…

I opposed the moon race as it began. I did so quietly before a Senate committee, and then held my peace. My opposition rested on two points. One was that the scientific results expected by no means justified the enormous expense involved, for the program called for spending money we badly needed for other things. The other was that a race to the moon against Russia made little sense to me in terms of our national security.

… but later had this to say about it:

Years ago, Lindbergh flew alone across the Atlantic—a stunt pilot contesting for a money prize—but he was the first man to fly it alone. That flight gave us a great lift, gave the whole world in fact a boost in morale when it was badly needed. We had then been wallowing in filth, the newspapers had been filled with the sordid details of murder trials, evil had been rampant in high places and duly spread before us. Then came Lindbergh, and his dignity and modesty caused us again to believe in our fellow men. So with the landing on the moon: In the midst of gloom and petty wrangling we suddenly became convinced that man could accomplish great feats of danger and skill. It was worth the effort if it caused us, once again, to have confidence in man’s ability to overcome rugged obstacles, and to rise above the sordid, the petty, the commonplace, and the wails of those who tell us we are doomed.

Contra Marx on the effect of industrialization on the worker:

It is often claimed that mass production reduces the worker to an automaton, whose contribution is merely that he can make certain motions with his hands that the machine cannot duplicate, and none with his brain. There is not much doubt that this sort of thing happened when the automatic loom entered the textile industry. But, as mechanization proceeded and became highly complex, there has been a transformation, and some, not by any means all, of present development has been in the opposite direction. If I go into some highly developed machine shop today I find little dull repetitive work indeed. The machinist operating a tape-controlled milling machine is certainly paid primarily for his intellectual skills; so was the man who built the machine in the first place. Even on a fully mechanized production line, where parts move along and each operator does just one act, the men are chosen, not because they can duly perform when all goes well, but because they can overcome obstacles when it doesn’t.

The debt society owes to the researchers and the industrial pioneers:

It would be well if people, youth in particular, recognized the debt society owes to the quiet workers that we never hear of, especially those who are led on by their curiosity and their desire to explore, with very little thought about acclaim or fortune. It would also be well if people in this country generally regarded with more respect the industrial pioneers, who are willing to take a chance, and who furnish a very necessary element in commercial progress. If they are not present and active, very little is likely to happen.

Another group that is underappreciated:

The great majority [of students] just accept things as they are, and more or less meekly conform. A small minority attack the system, grow beards, wear ragged clothes, start riots of one sort or another. But there is a third group, usually overlooked, who don’t like what they see, propose to do something about it, but propose to accomplish this by working within the system as it stands, and thus to modify it. I believe that this third group is large, that it has as members the best thinkers, that it will be the group that will be running our affairs in the next generation.

More on the small, intelligent minority:

In every civilization, at some time, there has been confusion, with young men doing foolish things, with the great body of the public inert or yearning to be led somewhere, anywhere, following the demagogue or the man on a white horse. Yet always there has been a small minority, intelligent, comprehending the current political system, scorning both the flighty radical and the protesting reactionary groups by which it was surrounded. It is this central core that ruled our last generation, its business, its churches, its government. Amid the tumult, the hippies, the prophets of doom, we have today a group that understands and that will rule in the next generation. I am not saying that this outstanding group has always ruled us well in the past, or will rule as well in the future—I merely say there is a group that will rule. We do not need to worry too much about the ones that harass us with their insanities; as they become older they will be controlled. But we need to think more about the solid, keen, presently undemonstrative youths who will build our system of government and industry of the future, and who will build it not as we dictate, but as we transmit to them, as best we may, the wisdom to do it well.

Other fun stories

Early cars were an adventure:

I had some interesting times with that car. It would be going along the road and for some reason or other (probably because the leak in the boiler squirted a little steam out around the edge of a tube) the pilot would get blown out. The controls would turn on the main kerosene line and the whole thing would be flooded with kerosene. When that happened, you stopped at the side of the road and waited until you felt the fumes had blown away. Then you touched a match to the pilot again. If you were too soon with the match, the gaseous mixture would blow up. I remember its blowing up one time when it sent the top of the hood thirty feet in the air and blew all the asbestos off the boiler.

The bravado of Palmer C. Putnam, who led the project to create the amphibious military vehicle known as the DUKW:

One very cold day he demonstrated the Dukw to a group of officers on a beach in Virginia. Ten officers and I stood in the truck as it rolled down the beach; a vicious surf was pounding in. “Gentlemen,” said Put [Palmer C. Putnam], “I am sorry we have no surf this morning. It was excellent yesterday but has subsided so that I can give you only a weak demonstration. Driver, take her out to sea.” So we went to sea. The water flew and the craft plunged. After some time with this sort of thing a rather wet group of officers got ashore and headed for a drink. Put smiled and said he had hoped for better surf.

On the spirit we need

I’ll close this with a comment from Bush on pride:

… we need, today, something we can be genuinely proud of. It should help to dissipate the gloom. For we have been losing our pride of accomplishment in these recent days. Pride of the right sort does not go before a fall; pride of accomplishment leads to greater accomplishment.

And on the pioneer spirit:

We need a revival of the essence of the old pioneer spirit which conquered the forest and the plains, which looked at its difficulties with a steady eye, labored and fought, and left its thinking and its philosophy for later and quieter times. This is not to call for optimism; it is to call for determination.

If you enjoyed this, get Pieces of the Action on Amazon.

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