Vannevar Bush

Vannevar Bush in 1945

At the beginning of December, the National Science Board publicly opened this year’s nominations for the Vannevar Bush’s award, “named after the gifted visionary and dynamic public servant who was behind the creation of the National Science Foundation” (NSF), so says the press release. Bush, apparently a man of exceptional dedication and brilliance, was an electronic engineer and one of the most powerful world scientists of the first half of the 20th century. He used to wear elegant waistcoat suits and regimental neckties, his face had regular features, with a square, pronounced jaw and a pointy nose. Bush’s name is notoriously associated with American warlike applications of science and technology during the First and Second World Wars as well as with various sinister sounding research committees: the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the National Defense Research Committee, the Joint New Weapons Committee, the Military Policy Committee of the Manhattan District, the Atomic Energy Commission.

In his biographic notes, Jerome B. Weisner recalls a small, but significant episode of Bush’s life: a verbal exchange between Vannevar and President Truman. When the NSF was established in 1947, Bush asked Truman not to name him as member of the board. “I have been running about everything scientific during the war, and somewhat since, and I think people are getting tired of seeing this guy Bush run things around here.” According to Weisner, to make his point, the scientist added: “if you put me on the board, they will elect me chairman, and I do not think the body of scientists are going to like this continuation of one man in the top.” To this exhortation, Truman responded: “Van, you should be a politician. You have some of the instincts.” Bush’s answer: “Mr. President, what the hell do you think I’ve been doing around this town for five or six years?”

Mr. Bush was a firm believer in at least two particular types of connections, now normal and accepted to the point that we can hardly untangle their components. The first is between technological development and policing control. The second is between military and civilian scientific endeavors. In Bush’s world of efficient technical evolution, war technology research bodies and corporate giants were to walk next to each other, sometimes swapping place and functions.

Vannevar patented a plethora of disparate inventions, all sharing violent inclinations and ranging from a bird feeder inhospitable to greedy pigeons to a machine for rifling guns. His more persistent interest, though, was with large data storing and sifting. The Memmex project, an ancestor of the internet, is the enterprise he is still more known for, alongside founding the Raython Corporation, a leading defense contractor.

Indeed, one of his less successful contraptions, one that was never patented and commercialized, betrays a similar obsession with information slicing and data ordering: the automatic microtome. In June 1952, the Toledo Blade released the news that America’s famous head of wartime scientific research was “spending time” (I find the use of this temporal expression curious) improving microscopic testing devices. Generally speaking, a microtome is nothing more than a high precision cutting tool meant to shave thin sheets of tissues, of a size in the range of microns, small enough to be translucent. The slice is usually mounted on a slide, retro-illuminated and examined with the powerful compound lenses of modern electronic microscopes. Microtomes are common instruments in zoology and botany for the collection of specimens as well as in hospital laboratories, where pathologists scrutinize autopsy samples, lymph nodes, thyroid glands, etc.

Bush’s invention was supposed to revolutionize the painstaking manual mechanism, make it faster and more precise. The machine was a hybrid between a common microtome and a film camera and was based on the idea of reversing the process: instead of slicing and then mounting the specimen, Bush’s tool would first mount it and then cut it. The device was to feed a modified 35 mm Kodak film roll in direct contact with the surface of a selected tissue, the blade of the microtome would then close like a camera shutter, slicing off a flat fraction of the sample that, thanks to an emulsion, was already mounted on the film frame. The tape would move and collect as many samples as needed, with the knife progressively cutting deeper and deeper into the tissue. As the Toledo Blade reported, the method was easy and guaranteed to produce perfectly ordered samples.

I came across the idea of this strange little gadget while reading Graham Burnet’s contribution to the catalogue of The Slice: Cutting to See, a 2010 exhibition organized at the Architectural Association Gallery in London by Cabinet magazine.

Silvia Mollicchi is a writer and a founding editor of Fungiculture, and is currently based in London. She writes a column for Full Stop about unlikely experiments, inventions and theories.

Silvia Mollicchi is a writer and a founding editor of Fungiculture, and is currently based in London. She writes a column for Full Stop about unlikely experiments, inventions and theories.

Searching for more information, I found records of the invention in different texts and articles across the internet. Burnet uses particularly suggestive words to describe Bush’s intentions: “[he] loved the idea of decomposing physical objects directly onto film, section by sequential section.” Burnet rightly points out also the handiness of the invention: the engineered hybrid tool, this smart “animated flip-book of the body” could be easily carried around. Another plus: science lab processes of staining and fixing could happen just as they do in dark rooms for commercial development.

Burnet writes of Bush’s microtome to reflect on the idea of “vision by incision.” Now, if we unfold and iteratively run through the device’s mechanism, we shall deepen its description and pick up more of its details. Vision by incision doubles up as vision by slicing and taping, surgically removing thin layers and attaching them to movie frames. So we have information processing (organizing plus showing) by slicing volumetric bodies into sheets of data that are ready-at-hand. Depth is smeared into vertical fractions there to be scrutinized or watched as a film at the theatre.

Vannevar Bush died in 1974 at the age of 84. His late invention prompted a number of research papers, published after 1952, explaining possible developments of the idea, but it was never implemented for medical applications on a large scale. Yet, we know that Bush’s imagination was mighty and so was his inclination to re-purpose available technologies for less civilian intentions. There is no way to know, but perhaps Vannevar’s vision by slicing could have taken different forms in the contemporary age.

It’s unlikely his invention would have transformed into some devilish tool that could sever our bodies at different points of control interface — the police agent, the border agent, the estate or council agent, the clock-in dashboard, the credit check company etc. — scanning across our volume, playing the movie roll of our depths. It would consider our personal information like a three-dimensional chunk of stuff (physical and non) to cut through and show in layers, instead of a ready-made flat piece of paper. We can be thankful that when this happens, it is just metaphorically.

Still, I cannot stop thinking about this slicing-as-vision in parallel with contemporary means of control. If vision as control does not materially work as Vannevar’s invention, the contraption lightly carries the aesthetic violence of it. The intrusive precision knife combined with the ordering and projecting of frames is more than a structural metaphor for inquisition. The latter hurts in exactly the same way of the former. Peeling, mounting and rolling — all very quickly and smoothly — so that sequences of ultra-thin sheets of my presence can be edited out of the film, superimposed face-to-face on existing blueprints and then shoveled back in, like nothing ever happened.