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Vannevar Bush papers

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: MC-0078

Scope and Contents

The Vannevar Bush Papers consist of correspondence, reports, patent records, notes, memos, manuscript drafts and galley proofs of books and articles, appointment calendars, and reprints primarily from 1956 to 1974. There are three series: 1. Subject Files, 2. Writings, and 3. Appointment Calendars. The collection came in two accessions, and although the two were interfiled, whenever possible the papers were kept in their original order. As a result the subject files are in three sections (Active, Current, and Inactive) but the reasons for these divisions are not readily apparent. The researcher should check all three sections for any particular correspondent or subject, because the dates of the files and the correspondents' names often overlap.

After Bush retired as president of the Carnegie Institution in 1956 he returned to Belmont, Massachusetts, where he remained until his death in 1974. The bulk of this collection is from these retirement years. Bush remained actively involved in scientific and other organizations that ranged from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Carnegie Institution to the Cape Cod Pilgrim Memorial Association and the Library of the Boston Athenaeum. Further evidence of Bush's continuing activities can be culled from the appointment calendars (Series 3) that date from 1962 to 1969. The subject files (Series 1) contain routine correspondence, including invitations to speak, comments on Bush's articles and books, and requests for reviews of colleagues' writings. Personal correspondence is mixed with professional papers. Travel plans, biographical data, and financial data are listed under "Bush" in the files. Reflected throughout the files are Bush's friendships with scientists and statesmen and his continuing interest in scientific matters. For example, correspondence with Philip Abelson, Ira Bowen, James Conant, and Merle Tuve reveals some of Bush's ideas on relativity. He also exchanged ideas with scientists and engineers about hydrofoil boats, medical instrumentation, and other subjects.

When he returned to Massachusetts, Bush started to invent again. His files contain correspondence, working notes, data from experiments, and patent records about these inventions. A substantial amount of this information deals with Bush's experiments with the external combustion engine, the free-piston engine, the hot gas engine, the hydraulic motor and the Sterling engine. The files also contain information on other inventions, including a high speed printer, Nomad radar for Raytheon, and valve inventions for the heart and the brain.

Bush had long been involved with industry and Series 1 includes papers from his administrative activities. There are reports, correspondence, agreements, notes, and printed material concerning Merck & Company, American Telephone & Telegraph, Stewart-Warner Corporation, and others. Many of Bush's industrial commitments antedated his retirement, but this collection only contains relevant files from his retirement years. Because the information starts with his retirement, Bush's long association with MIT is not fully reflected in Series 1. There is some correspondence from his years as chair and honorary chair of the Corporation and from the visiting committees on which he served.

Bush's writings provide better evidence of his MIT activities. Many of his articles and speeches (Series 2) were written for the MIT community. They reflect Bush's opinion about the students and the Institute. Bush was an active writer and the collection contains some of his earliest work. The bulk of Series 2, however, is from Bush's later career when he tried to address a popular as well as a scientific audience in order to provide an explanation of scientific progress and concerns instead of a strict scientific investigation. This evolution in content occurred as Bush became increasingly involved in science policy decisions.

Two books that Bush wrote for both the scientist and the layman are substantially documented in the collection through correspondence, notes, biographical material about the books' subjects, manuscript drafts, and reviews. While he was writing Pieces of the Action and Science Is Not Enough, Bush asked for opinions from his colleagues, and some of their comments are also in Series 2. In the correspondence Pieces of the Action is referred to as "BBS" (Bush Book Senior) and Science Is Not Enough is identified with the initials "BBJ" (Bush Book Junior) or "HBK" (reference unknown).

Series 1 and 2 should be checked for correspondence about Bush's writings. Especially fruitful is the correspondence and notes from Bush's editor and friend, Frederick R. Fassett. The correspondence in the subject files often contains both Fassett's and Bush's original letters; the bulk of this material starts in October of 1967. At some point part of Fassett's and Bush's files were merged. Some earlier correspondence, from August 1966 to August 1967, between Fassett and Bush, came to the Institute Archives in the Frederick R. Fassett Papers. Researchers interested in the writing of Science Is Not Enough should consult both collections.


  • Creation: 1921 - 1974


Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open.

Digital Access Note

Some parts of this collection are available online. Links to specific online digital items are found within their entry in this finding aid.

Conditions Governing Use

Access to collections in the Department of Distinctive Collections is not authorization to publish. Please see the MIT Libraries Permissions Policy for permission information. Copyright of some items in this collection may be held by respective creators, not by the donor of the collection or MIT.

Biographical Note

Vannevar Bush was born on March 11, 1890, in Everett, Massachusetts, to Richard Perry Bush, a Universalist clergyman, and Emma Linwood Paine Bush. After attending high school in Chelsea, Massachusetts, Bush received both his Bachelor and his Master of Science degrees from Tufts College in 1913. His first job was with the Testing Department of General Electric Company, and, in 1914, he joined the Inspection Department of the US Navy. Later that year he returned to Tufts as an instructor of mathematics. After a year's study at MIT and Harvard, Bush received a Doctor of Engineering degree in 1916. At that time Harvard and MIT awarded this degree jointly. He returned to Tufts as an assistant professor of electrical engineering. The same year he married Phoebe Davis.

At Tufts Bush became a consultant to the American Research and Development Corporation (AMRAD), a company that developed radio devices. When World War I started, Bush went to New London, Connecticut, to conduct anti-submarine research for AMRAD. There he developed a magnetic device for detecting submarines, but the device was never used by the Navy. Bush was a civilian during World War I, but served as a lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserve from 1924 to 1932.

Bush returned to MIT in 1919 to become an associate professor of electrical power transmission and by 1923 he was made a full professor. His teaching duties were reduced when he became the director of graduate study and of the Research Division of the Department of Electrical Engineering. During this time Bush continued to act as a consultant for AMRAD and, in association with Laurence K. Marshall, he worked on projects which eventually led to the founding of the Raytheon Company and the Metals and Controls Corporation.

With the help of several MIT graduate students, Bush designed the first in a series of analog machines; called the Product Integraph, it was an early development in the field of computation. Bush and Professor Harold L. Hazen built a version of the machine with greater capacity in 1927. Bush completed his best known machine, the Differential Analyzer, in 1931. It solved sixth-order differential equations or three simultaneous second-order differential equations and served as a prototype for other machines. At the same time, under Bush's guidance, Hazen and H. H. Spencer developed the Network Analyzer to use in the simulation of power systems.

By 1941 Bush's efforts led to the development of the Rockefeller Differential Analyzer which proved more versatile because punched tape controlled this 100-ton giant. It was fully operational by 1942 and was in constant use during World War II for the computation of Navy range tables and studies of fire-control systems, radar antennas, and other critical subjects.

During his years at MIT Bush made other scientific contributions including improvements in the design of vacuum tubes and four-engine bombers and studies on transients in machines and on dielectric phenomena. He also invented such electronic machines as a justifying typewriter, a rapid selector, and the cinema integraph.

Bush continued to be active in MIT's administration and from 1932 to 1938 he served as vice president and the first dean of the School of Engineering. During the administration of President Karl T. Compton, Bush became a leader in modernizing the curriculum and advancing research. In 1939 Bush became a lifetime member of MIT's governing body, the Corporation, and from 1957 to 1959 he served as chair of the Corporation and then as honorary chair until 1971.

Bush left MIT in 1938 to assume the presidency of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, DC, a position he held until 1955. During his tenure as president, Bush coordinated the Carnegie Institution's research program to work in closer cooperation with other educational and research agencies.

Bush became a member of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) in 1938 and was chair from 1939 until 1941. Bush held discussions with James B. Conant, Frank B. Jewett, Karl T. Compton, and Richard C. Tolman that dealt with the lack of technological preparedness of the US. He asked the secretary of NACA to begin preparing a proposal to establish a National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) that would address the problem. Before the proposal could be formally submitted to Congress, the urgency of the situation compelled Bush to approach President Roosevelt directly with the plan.

The NDRC came into official existence on June 27, 1940, with Bush as its chair. In 1941 the NDRC, an Advisory Council, and a Committee on Medical Research became branches of the newly created Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) and Bush assumed its directorship. In addition, Bush was chair of the Joint New Weapons Committee of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Through the OSRD, Bush mobilized the country's scientific efforts, initiated research programs in cooperation with the Army and Navy, advised the President on the status of scientific research and development, and supported continuing research on the instrumentalities and materials of war and in the field of medicine. The OSRD administered the atomic bomb project until 1943. In all, before activities ceased in 1947, the OSRD developed over two hundred weapons in addition to making contributions to the fields of medicine, physics, and chemistry, among others.

In the fall of 1944, President Roosevelt asked Bush to use his experience with the OSRD to make recommendations on government policies for combating disease, supporting research, developing scientific and technical talents and diffusing scientific information. Bush's report, Science, the Endless Frontier, issued in July 1945, drew upon studies made by scientists, engineers, and educators, and made specific proposals for the consolidation and utilization of the nation's scientific skills. Bush's treatise eventually led to the establishment of the National Science Foundation in 1947.

After the war, Bush remained actively involved with governmental administration of scientific research. In 1946, Bush served for a year as chair of the Joint Research and Development Board of the War and Navy departments. This Board was replaced by the Research and Development Board of the National Military Establishment and Bush continued as chair until 1948. For two years, starting in 1953, Bush was a member of the National Science Foundation's Advisory Committee on Government-University Relationships.

After his eighteen-year tenure in Washington, DC, Bush returned to Belmont, Massachusetts, and renewed his association with MIT. In 1965 the Center for Materials and Engineering was named the Vannevar Bush Building to honor his service to MIT Bush also renewed his interest in inventing when he returned to Massachusetts. He built a machine shop in the basement of his Belmont home and worked on hydraulic pumps and motors, free piston engines, and steam engines. He developed medical devices such as a silicone rubber valve for the heart and a gold valve for the treatment of hydrocephalus. His interests expanded into the development and testing of hydrofoil boats, as well.

The industrial aspects of science also concerned Bush. From 1947 to 1962 he was a director of American Telephone and Telegraph. In 1949 he became a member of the board of the pharmaceutical company Merck & Co. and served as chair after 1957. He was one of the founders and the executive chair of the Graphic Arts Research Foundation.

Bush died at his home in Belmont on June 28, 1974, at the age of eighty-four.

See also Jerome Wiesner's biography of Vannevar Bush in National Academy of Sciences Biographical Memoirs, vol. 50, 1979.


25 Cubic Feet (24 record cartons, 3 manuscript boxes, 1 half manuscript box)

Language of Materials


Physical Location

Materials are stored off-site. Advance notice is required for use.

Related Materials

The bulk of Bush's papers are at the Library of Congress; an inventory of these holdings can be found in Box 7 of this collection. Additional material about Bush is housed at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, DC, and the records of the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) are located at the National Archives and Record Service.

Department of Distinctive Collections, MIT

MIT Office of the Vice President (Bush), Records, 1932 1938 (AC 333).

MIT Office of the President (Compton Killian), Records, 1930 1959 (AC 4).

MIT Patent, Copyright and Licensing Office Records, 1930 1979 (AC 67).

Frederick R. Fassett Papers (MC 162).


  • United States. Office of Scientific Research and Development. Science, the Endless Frontier: A Report to the President on a Program for Postwar Scientific Research, by Vannevar Bush, director. July 1945. Washington: US Government Printing Office, 1945.
  • Bush, Vannevar. Pieces of the Action. New York: Morrow, 1970. MIT Libraries
  • Wiesner, Jerome. "Vannevar Bush (1890-1974) National Academy of Sciences Biographical Memoirs, vol. 50, 1979.
  • Zachary, G. Pascal. Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century. New York : Free Press, 1997.

Processing Information note

Some collection descriptions are based on legacy data and may be incomplete or contain inaccuracies. Description may change pending verification. Please contact the MIT Department of Distinctive Collections if you notice any errors or discrepancies.

Preliminary Inventory to the Papers of Vannevar Bush
Ready For Review
Mary Jane McCavitt
(Copyright 1981)
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Processing of a portion of this collection was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Revision Statements

  • 2021 July 12: Edited by Lana Mason to remove aggrandizing terms in the biographical note description.

Repository Details

Part of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Libraries. Department of Distinctive Collections Repository

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Libraries
Building 14N-118
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