Rhetoric and Public Affairs 23, no. 3 (Fall): 496-526.
The Memex is an icon in the history of computer technology. It was first presented to the public in a 1945 Life Magazine article as “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.” The Memex itself was never built, but the image of what machines like it could do captured the imagination of a generation of computer engineers. The Memex was designed by an engineer and science administrator named Vannevar Bush, but he had actually designed the Memex to address interwar America: the Memex article was written during the tumult of the late 1930s and largely untouched during World War II. This article examines the Memex within this interwar context, paying particular attention to how Bush used the design of a technological prototype to imagine how machines could help humans navigate the modern world. I argue that this effort was an act of rhetorical invention and show that the design of the Memex was a vehicle for Bush to endorse technocratic authority over American life.
Header mage description: A black and white image shows an issue of TIME Magazine, with a portrait of Vannevar Bush on the cover. The magazine is in front of a hand-drawn picture of the Memex, an early precursor to the personal computer, which was designed by Bush
Want to learn more about the history and legacy of the Memex? Check out this video archive of the MIT/Brown Vannevar Bush Symposium, which celebrated the 50th anniversary of the publication of “As We May Think.” The symposium was held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on October 12-15, 1995. Link here.
Check out a video animation of the Memex based on Vannevar Bush’s description here. This video was created for the 1995 Symposium.
You can see a demonstration of the physical Memex in action (built by two computer enthusiasts in 2014) here.