As We May Think

Vannevar Bush: “As We May Think,” article at The Atlantic Monthly, July 1945.

The article was published just after the World War II. It is about 10 pages long.

According to Bush, science has improved human life in many ways, but now we are becoming stuck because we cannot notice and apply the whole knowledge that has been reached and constantly grows. We need to apply the science to produce tools to cope with the current complexity of the records, not only in science but also in business and organisation. The main problem with the current handling of the records is its indexation, that is counterintuitive. The natural means of item binding is by association. Bush proposes hence a machine for personal and collective information gathering and processing that can handle association: the memex. Its main information structure is the trail, an arbitrary chain of items that each user can set up and pass over.


The memex (a portmanteau of “memory” and “index”) is the name of the hypothetical proto-hypertext system that Vannevar Bush described in his 1945 The Atlantic Montly article “As We Think.”


During the War many scientists, especially physicists, got new duties. Now the War is over and they need new assignments.

Section 1. Science and its use has improved considerably many aspects of human life. The scientific knowledge has grown dramatically but the means for us to cope with it remain the same since centuries. We are no longer able to use what the science finds out. On the other hand the technology has madured a lot and we can now produce complex und nevertheless cheap and reliable machines.

Section 2. For a scientific record to be useful it must be not only stored but also continually consulted and enhanced. Through photography we will probably soon be capable to store the complete human writings compressed in a small room.

Section 3. The lengthy process from the original writing until the print could become immediate, if we combine some recent advances in speech recording and stenography. Many processes of repetitive thought (not of creative one) could be relegated to machine. Arithmetical computation will be left to electrical machines.

Section 4. The scientific reasoning goes far beyond the arithmetics. Now there are few machines not used for arithmetics, partially because of the market’s needs. But there are other repetitive processes of thought to be mechanized, in analysis, differential equation solving, up to higher mathematics. This would empower the mathematics at all.

Section 5. A machine could moreover be used at any place where logical processes of thought appear. We will need a new symbolism to achieve logical machines. We now have insufficient tools for the selection of knowledge. Selection is the key to the use of science but is also more generally needed for practical purposes, from business administration to communications.

Section 6. The root of our problem with selection is the inadequacy of the indexing systems. Records are sorted alphabetically or numerically, this classification being inadequate to the human mind, which is associative by nature. Selection by association may be mechanized, improving (not the speed and flexibility) but the permanence and clarity of the stored informations.

[Introducing the memex] A device for individual use could store all informations and communications, expanding the memory. Lets call it the “memex.” It looks like a desk with slanted screens, one can enter all sorts of writings (letters, newspapers, books), which arrive directly in microfilm format or are being photographed in place, they are stored inside. The stored pages can be called by a mnemonic code and browsed at different speeds. It is possible to take marginal notes and do comments at every point.

Section 7. The key feature of the memex is the ability to associate two arbitrary items at will. The user can build a trail by associating some items and give it a code name. From now on at any time viewing an item one can recall a parallel viewing of the other one, and the whole trail can be browsed at different speeds and can also be passed over to another user’s memex.

Section 8. The trails can be shared with friends and can be published, too. New forms of publications will appear at every field, leading to new cultural forms. It is perhaps possible to establish a direct connection between the nerves and the record to create or consume it skipping the senses. It would be good for the mankind to dispose of tools to understand better the past and analyse the present problems. So far we have applied science to live better, but also to produce destruction. Perhaps there is a chance to apply the record to get wiser.


Situation analysis:

There is a growing mountain of research. But there is increased evidence that we are being bogged down today as specialization extends. The investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers — conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear. Yet specialization becomes increasingly necessary for progress, and the effort to bridge between disciplines is correspondingly superficial.

[Section 1, 3rd paragraph]

The scientist, however, is not the only person who manipulates data and examines the world about him by the use of logical processes, […]. Whenever logical processes of thought are employed — that is, whenever thought for a time runs along an accepted groove — there is an opportunity for the machine. […]

[Section 5, 1st paragraph]

The human mind does not work that way. It operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain. It has other characteristics, of course; trails that are not frequently followed are prone to fade, items are not fully permanent, memory is transitory. Yet the speed of action, the intricacy of trails, the detail of mental pictures, is awe-inspiring beyond all else in nature.

[Section 6, 2nd paragraph]

The memex:

Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, “memex” will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.

[Section 6, 4th paragraph]

The trails will lead to a new cultural landscape:

The historian, with a vast chronological account of a people, parallels it with a skip trail which stops only on the salient items, and can follow at any time contemporary trails which lead him all over civilization at a particular epoch. There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record. The inheritance from the master becomes, not only his additions to the world’s record, but for his disciples the entire scaffolding by which they were erected.

[Section 8, 2nd paragraph]