Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


ARPA and the Formation of the Modern Computer Industry, Part 2: Memex, Personal Computing, and the NSF

Posted on | September 26, 2021 | No Comments

With World War II winding down, President Roosevelt asked Vannevar Bush, his “czar” of all federally funded scientific research, for a set of recommendations on the application of the lessons learned during the war. The President was particularly interested in how the scientific and technological advances achieved in the war effort could improve issues like national employment, the creation of new industries, and the health of the nation’s population. This post looks at Bush’s contribution to the formation of the National Science Foundation and computing developments that lead to interactivity and networking.

Bush managed the Office of Scientific Research and Development under Roosevelt and later became President Truman’s science advisor. While not actually stationed in New Mexico, Bush had the overall supervisory responsibility for building the first atomic bomb and was uniquely positioned to understand the new technologies and scientific advances coming out of the war. As a result, Bush took up the President’s challenge and wrote two articles that would have far-reaching consequences.

Bush’s articles provided the rationale for funding a wide range of technological and scientific activities and inspired a new generation of researchers. His first written response, “Science, the Endless Frontier,” led to the formation of the National Science Foundation (NSF). The NSF provided widespread funding for scientific and technological research throughout the country’s universities and research institutes.[1] In the mid-1980s, it would take control of the non-military part of the ARPANET and link up supercomputing centers in response to the Japanese economic-technological threat. The NSFNET, as it was called, would also standardize the TCP/IP protocols and lead to the modern Internet.

Bush’s second response, “As We May Think,” was published in the Atlantic Monthly in July 1945, just a few months after Hitler committed suicide and a month before Bush’s atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. The article received lukewarm attention at first, but it persisted and inspired many people, including J.C.R. Licklider, who pursued a vision of computing interactivity and communications based on Bush’s ideas.

In a war that increasingly turned to science and technology to provide the ultimate advantage, Bush’s responsibilities were crucial to the outcome of World War II. These burdens also placed him in a troublesome position of needing to read, digest and organize an enormous amount of new scientific information. This responsibility led him to develop and forward the idea of an information technology device known as the “memex,” something he had been working on in the late 1930s while he was a professor and the Vice-President of MIT.[2]

The memex is arguably the model for the personal computer and was a distinct vision of man-machine interactivity that motivated Licklider’s interest in time-sharing technologies and networking. Bush’s conception of a new device aimed at organizing and storing information at a personal level led to a trajectory of government-sponsored research projects that aimed to realize his vision. In 1960, Licklider, a lecturer at MIT, published “Man-Computer Symbiosis,” a theoretical article on real-time interactive computing. [3] Licklider, a psychologist by training, later moved to Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) in 1962 to become the first director of its Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO).

It was the intersection of his vision with the momentum of the Cold War that led to the fruition of Bush’s ideas, largely through the work of Licklider. The first timesharing systems were constructed at MIT with funding from ARPA, as well as the Office of Naval Research. Constructed over the years 1959 to 1962, these efforts led to a working model called Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS). Using the new IBM 7090 and 7094 computers, CTSS proved that the time-sharing concept could work, even though it only linked three computers.

The military later supplied MIT with a $3 million grant to develop man-machine interfaces. By 1963 Project MAC, as it was called, connected some 160 typewriter consoles throughout the campus and in some faculty homes with up to 30 users active at any one time. It allowed for simple calculations, programming and eventually what became known as word processing. In 1963 the project was refunded and expanded into a larger system called MULTICS (Multiplexed Information and Computing Service) with Bell Labs also collaborating in the research. MULTICS demonstrated the capacity to handle 40-50 users and use cathode ray tube (CRT) graphic devices, and accommodate users that were not professional programmers.[4]

As the cases of computing and timesharing show, the military-industrial tie drove early computing developments and created the foundation for the Internet to emerge. Funding for a permanent war economy introduced the information-processing regime to the modern world. In conjunction with research institutes like MIT, MITRE, and RAND, and corporations such IBM, GE, as well as the Bell System, IT got its start.

Licklider’s notion of an “Inter-Galactic Computer Network” began to circulate as a vague idea through a like-minded group of computer scientists who were beginning to see the potential of connected computers. The IPTO was beginning to seed the literal invention of computer science as a discipline and its establishment in universities around the country. In Licklider’s memo of April 25, 1963, he addressed the “members and affiliates” of the network that had coalesced around his vision, and the money of ARPA. His concern was that computers should be able to communicate with each other easily and provide information on demand. The project was posed in terms of cross-cultural communications. The concept helped ARPA change its focus from what went on inside the computer to what went on between computers.

The technology was not quite there yet but the expertise was coming together that would change computing and data communications forever. Using military money Licklider began the support of actual projects to create computer technologies that expanded Bush’s vision. A little-known corporation called Bolt, Beranek, and Newman (BBN) was one of the most significant to come out of a new complex of agencies and companies working on computing projects. The bond between this small corporation, MIT, and ARPA produced a packet-switched network that became the precursor to today’s modern Internet.

In conjunction with the National Science Foundation, ARPA pursued human-computer interactivity and subsidized the creation of computer science departments throughout the country. It funded time-sharing projects and funded the first packet-switching technology and would be the foundational technology of the Internet.


[1] Bush stayed with the government throughout the 1940s directing science funding and then becoming the first head of the National Science Foundation after it was established in 1950.
[2] Information on Bush’s early conception of the memex from M. Mitchell Waldrop’s (2001) The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution that Made Computing Personal. New York: The Penguin Group. Particularly useful is the second chapter that focuses on Bush.
[3] Licklider, J.C.R (1960) “Man-Machine Symbiosis,” IRE TRANSACTIONS ON HUMAN FACTORS IN ELECTRONICS. March.
[4] Denicoff, M. (1979) “Sophisticated Software: The Road to Science and Utopia,” in Dertouzos, M.L. and Moses, J.(1979) The Computer Age: A Twenty Year View. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press. p. 370-74.



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is a Professor at the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas. His first academic job was at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. Most of his career was at New York University. He has also spent time as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii at also supported his Ph.D.


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    Professor at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea since 2016. Moved to Austin, Texas in August 2012 to join the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University. Spent the previous decade on the faculty at New York University teaching and researching information systems, digital economics, and strategic communications.

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