Category Archives: Vannever Bush

The Sword of Damocles


Earlier this week, I covered “The Sword of Damocles”, the first pioneering example of virtual and augmented reality technology from 1968. Unfortunately I was unable to locate a visual demo of it at the time, but thanks to Thomas Richter, he sent me a link to a short video demonstrating it in action:

The above GIF, text, and video came by way of this post on the Prosthetic Knowledge tumblr. I followed up on a number of the documents linked in this post, and what struck me was that virtual reality was (like the mouse, the internet, video conferencing, online dating, etc.) yet another pioneering technology realized during the 1960s.

While reading through the documents framing out these innovation in graphic user interfaces I recognized the name of their author, Ivan Sutherland. from the 1998 history of the internet Where Wizards Stay Up Late that I read early this semester. So, the same guy who designed the Sword of Damocles had replaced J.C.R. Licklider as the head of ARPA’s Information Processing Techniques Office a few years earlier in 1964. It’s remarkable how small this 1960s world of techncial inventions and innovations was.

Crazy enough, these far out 3-D virtual reality glasses from 1968 were by no means the most important of Sutherlands creations. Five years earlier he created Sketchpad as part of his Ph.D. thesis at Harvard. Sketchpad represented a revolutionary approach to graphic user interfaces and human-computer interaction by “using an x-y point plotter display and the recently invented light pen.” Interestingly enough for the purposes of the Internet Course, Sutherland’s vision for Sketchpad was inspired by Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think” and helped realize some of Licklider’s vision in “Man Computer Symbiosis.” Below is a quote from Sutherland’s 1965 paper “The Ultimate Display:”

The ultimate display would, of course, be a room within which the computer can control the existence of matter. A chair displayed in such a room would be good enough to sit in. Handcuffs displayed in such a room would be confining, and a bullet displayed in such a room would be fatal. With appropriate programming such a display could literally be the Ultimate Display Wonderland into which Alice walked.

A vision of computer itnerfaces as the ultimate in a virtual reality wherein chairs work, handcuffs bind, and bullets kill. This notion of the looking glass as ameans to define the idea of computer displays as an entry to another world is fascinating, and it was all right there in the mid-1960s. Amazing how these engineers were remarkably poetic and expansive in their discussion of what might have just been technology—I wonder how much of this has to do with the example set by thinkers like Licklider and Bush

Another paper Sutherland authored in the 1968, “A Head-Mounted Three-Dimensional Display,” frames out the thinking and execution of “The Sword of Damocles.” While noting his findings with how folks experienced the 3-D headgear he noted:

Even with this relatively crude system, the three-dimensional illusion was real. Users naturally moved to positions appropriate for the particular views they desired. For instance, the “size” of a displayed cube could be measured by noting how far the observer must move to line himself up with the left face of the right face of the cube.

And that cube was real, well virtually at least. And as you can tell by the notes in this paper, Sutherland cites the work of Larry Roberts, the cheif architect of the internet, on several occasions in that paper. Particularly Roberts work on the Lincoln Wand at the Lincoln laboratory. Just like the internet, I’m finding these various inventions and creations were part of a more prevalent intellectual and cultural environment of creative approaches to what’s techncially possible at academic institutions with seemingly endless funding from the military-industrial complex.


Finally, during my search I found an oral history transcript from May 1, 1989 that featured Sutherland talking about his his tenure as head of DARPA’s Information Processing Techniques Office. He discusses the existing programs established by J. C. R. Licklider, his interaction with the research community, the budget, and the new initiatives started while he was there: projects in graphics and networking, the ILLIAC IV, and the Macromodule program. Interestingly enough, the oral history is part of a series of interviews recorded as part of a research project on the influence of DARPA on the development of computer science in the US. As I’m just wrapping up the first iteration of the Internet Course I feel like I’m only just beginning to scratch the surface of this unbelievably rich history.

Analog Futures

EngelbartEarlier this week I read Vannevar Bush’s seminal 1945 essay “As We May Think.” It was as remarkable as I had heard in terms of his ability to predict the future, and I was amazed at just how many kernels of current technical and communciation realities it contained. Like Doug Engelbart’s “Mother of All Demoes” which introduced the computer mouse, word processing, networked video calls, and hyperlinks all in an hour an a haf, Bush’s essay maps out everything from the future of photography, wearable computing,  credit card machine, wireless communications, Wikipedia and the web more generally, which Bush refers to as the Memex. It’s an essay with a remarkable range of registers, from technical to practical to hopeful, and its that last one that was so inspiring for me while reading.

This article is just as much a historical document as it is a roadmap for the future. Written in 1945 it breifly frames the previous five years of intesive war-time scientific research dedicated to mass destruction (in the form of the Atom Bomb) as a turning point for civilization. Rather than continuing down this path, Bush himself effectively ran the militiary industrial complex during WWII in the U.S., the post-war moment provids the opportunity to direct that collaborative research momentum to transform the way humanity communicates. Re-think how we share information, solve problems, and provide “a record of ideas….so that knowledge survives and endures throughout the life of a race rather than that of an individual.” It’s powerful because it helps to position Bush, and after him Engelbart, in a tradition of the internet (and later the web) that is first and foremost grounded in the idea of sharing as much of the world’s knowledge as widely and openly as possible.

Connecting the history of the internet and new media with Bush and Engelbart immediately frames it as a deeply humane, noble pursuit that is, paradoixically, born out of and continually developed through and/or alongside the militiary industrial complex. That immediate tension still very much exisits remains, and id one of the more fascinating elements of internet history I hope comes across this week in the Internet Course.

The other part of Bush’s essay that fascinates me to no end is how he is pushes up against the limits of what’s possibly through analog technology.  This essay provides an excellent opportunity to talk with a class of students about the difference between analog and digital technologies, and what that has meant for the future of computing and culture. When Bush talks about the Memex, he imagines it as a “sort of mechanized private file and library” storing “all his books, records, and communiations.” What’s more, it’s a system that can be fit within a desk consisting of milliosn of compressed records on microfilm that can be immediately retrieved and linked to create a web of trails that the user follows.

Image of Vannever Bush's imagined "Memex"

Image of Vannever Bush’s imagined “Memex”

As Bush lays down the entire vision, it’s obvious he’s describing what we would call the web at almost ever point, the only difference between his vision and our reality is that it would ultimately be accomplished through digitally, not analog, computers. His vision of an analog Memex of microfilm wouldn’t have been practical because it explodes at the point of seamlessly linking various resources and breaking out of the linear continuity of analog information. Therein is the magic of digital information, it’s discontinuous. The digital enables the web trails that Bush discuess that cut across any one logical and continuous system to emerge by transmuting resources into binary packets of information that can be transmitted easily.

I spoke to this point a bit last Tuesday when teaching this essay, and I wonder if it might not be just as useful for the Domain of One’s Own Faculty Initiaitve folks who read “As We May Think,” as well as watched Engelbart’s demo. What does it mean to be a “digital” scholar in this regard? The term is used pretty liberally now, but how do we start to very specificaly map it onto the work we are doing in higher ed? Both Bush and Engelbart seem to share the basic principle that the emerging communication technology that would become the internet is premised on one thing above all others: ”augmenting human intellect.” How does that fit in with the way we use it?