Pieces of the Action

You can purchase the book here.

I've been wondering lately how the process of scientific research has developed over the years and this book helped shed some light on a potential answer. As I understand, it was Bush who helped create the current funding structure between the government and universities, as he thought it was of great importance for the military to work with the best civillian researchers, all of whom held positions at a university.

Vannevar Bush was an engineer, inventor, and administrator who headed the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) during WWII. Bush reported directly to President Roosevelt. Essentially all of the R&D of military equipment and operations were conducted through this department. This book is a culmination of those experiences distilled down to the lessons Bush learned about dealing with "tyros", going toe to toe with Churchill, his philosophy on organizational structure, what's wrong with the patent system, how engines work, an ode to teachers and colleges, and much more.

The foreword to this book, written by Ben Reinhardt, puts it well by saying:

So dive in. Have fun with it. Be curious. Skip around. Go deep. I went into this book with little more than a name and came out with the closest thing to a mentor someone you've never met can be.

I echo that statement.

Practical Takeaways

  • Change depends on two things: someone to work in a new way and an effective organization to bring those changes around. One is not more important than the other.

  • A leader's job is coordination. It requires a trust in the people doing the actual work (Bush did not appreciate how Churchill handled many scientific matters during the war), and it requires a clear line of communication with someone 100% responsible and able to make a drastic decision if that need be. Bush recounts times where there was confusion as to who could actually make a decision about going forward and this lead to more confusion and frustration.

  • This country pays greater attention to those who yell and complain about how something works today, or how it once worked, and seems to ignore those who are quietly working away towards a solution–especially those trying to work towards a solution within the confines of the current "screwed up" system.

  • The success of our democratic government is dependent on at least two things: 1) We must learn and impress upon ourselves the difference between the freedom to do what we please and the infringement upon the right's of others to do the same. 2) The nature and stability of the democratic system itself. Namely, the success and cooperation between the three branches of the government, and, whether when its forces get out of play, it has within itself the ability to restore itself to equilibrium.

  • A key trait of great leaders and workers is not just that they can get the job done when everything is going well, but that they know what to do and how to do it when everything goes wrong.

  • There are two primary ways to lose a battle (with all other things being equal): The first is by having confused lines of communication. The second is to have someone in charge with poor judgement.

  • A program, product, or initiative is guaranteed to fail if the CEO, leader, or president does not actively seek to make it work. If they don't care about it or are indifferent to it, it will not succeed. It may be average, but it won't ever achieve greatness.

  • The more complex something becomes, the more likely it is that just one thing can break or go wrong and cause throw the whole system into shambles. This is true of engineering and of relations and organizations.

  • In any large organization, there has to be a system for tracking and maintaining innovations that arise outside a specific field that would be useful for it. If not, they will get tossed aside and thrown in the "not useful" pile when in reality it was very useful, just for a different department.

  • In meetings where strategy is being discussed, there should be someone present who is a master of technical advancements that are just being put into use or will be put into use sometime in the near future.

  • Any group working in isolation will not sufficiently make adequate technological advancements.

  • In an industry that is standardized, where basically all companies are making profits, small changes can be introduced but nothing major will happen. There is no sense in disrupting something that seems to be working out okay, especially if the future is unknown.

  • An invention by itself is usually useless. It must be paired with promotion, financing, development, engineering, and marketing if the inventor wants to actually make some money and go somewhere with it.

  • There are two main ways to go about inventing something. One is to identify something the public needs and hurry to make something that fits that need. The other is to develop new knowledge in areas where there may be useful results and see where it leads.

  • When giving a speech, or really any conversation for that matter, don't start talking unless you know the exact sentence you're going to say at the end. Also, look at someone in the back row. If they become restless, put more volume into your voice. If they are still restless, stop talking.

  • When someone gets to the age where they start observing, understanding, and questioning how things in the world are done, they separate into three groups: The first is those who meekly conform to how things have always been and follow suit. The second, a smaller minority, attack the system and get really rebellious. A smaller third group, who is usually overlooked, propose to do something about what they don't like and propose to accomplish this by working within the system itself–repairing from the inside out.

  • Great teachers can teach you a lot about pride, humility, accomplishment, and a great many other virtues without ever saying a specific word about any of those topics.

  • For anyone working in a professional setting, understanding human relations and having sound social skills are just as important, if not more, than being a master of the actual facts of the field in which they operate.


  • Anybody who is serious about creating enduring change realizes that it's critical to understand the origins of the institutions that shape our world.

  • This book, provides a perspective "on the modern innovation environment as an evolved system with simple origins."

  • Ben Reinhardt in the foreword: "I went into this book with little more than a name and came out with the closest thing to a mentor someone you've never met can be."

  • The development of the atomic bomb fell into two phases, as I imagine most big technical breakthroughs follow. The first was the actual underlying physics behind it. The second was how to actually use those physics for something beneficial. I think this pattern is common: first comes the idea/discovery/breakthrough and then comes the "Okay, so what can we actually do with it." That is all fine and well, but we must be careful not to ask the second question too soon, for if no use is discovered, the breakthrough might be tossed to the waste bin. We must be able to recognize the value of the idea and not just the use case for the idea.

  • The tyro, as new recruits were called by the Romans, have contempt for channels of authority and ducks around them. They just butt into all sorts of levels and clash into the train of gears. A common type of tyro is the chap who assumes and flaunts his boss's authority, either without the boss's knowledge or simply because the boss does not realize the havoc being caused.


The following are direct quotes from Bush's words in the book.

  • Youth has always been in rebellion and should be if society is not to become static.

  • The study of history can aid in avoiding mistakes, provided it is recent history and accurate, that is, before it has degenerated into a myth.

  • The essence of civilization is the transmission of the findings of each generation to the next.

  • "Much of this book will be devoted to how we can keep our business rolling in the right direction."

  • Apparently in this strange country, we just continue practices that injure our neighbors until enough people get mad and make us quit.

  • For, after all, there is happiness in the world, in this cruel and confused world, if we but seek it, and welcome it when it appears.
  • Little things become submerged when great things are dominant.

  • There should never be, throughout an organization, any doubt as to where authority for making decisions resides, or any doubt that they will be promptly made.

  • When he knows stumbling blocks may get in the way of a joint effort in which he is engaged, a man who is light on his feet tries to anticipate them, to figure out where they may arise and why, and how best to evade them...Planning strategies means taking into account the personal quirks of some individual who almost always is the source of the blockade, and devising ways to annul his blockade by disarming him, by avoiding him by and end run, or, if necessary and possible, by knocking him on the head–figuratively of course.

  • As we subdivide fields of learning and render all of them more precise and more intricate, no man can be a master of all, but a man who sets his mind to it can become a valuable amateur in fields outside his mastership.

  • A man of intelligence can become well acquainted with a subject in surprisingly short time if he puts his mind to it. This is not to master it, but to arrive at a point where he speaks the language and can judge whether a proposal before him has been thought through and is sound. If a man is a good judge of men, he can go far on that skill alone.

  • A lot of invention appears merely because of curiosity and with little thought at the time of possible utility.
  • I think any man who has a bit of ingenuity in his soul gets quite a lot of fun out of following around with things that do not amount to anything, for the reason that when he does so, he has no pressures.

  • It would be well if people, youth in particular, recognized the debt society owes to the quiet workers whom we never hear of, especially those who are led on by their curiosity and their desire to explore, with very little thought about acclaim or fortune.

  • The inventor who works alone, who is isolated from the current trend of thought, and who hence does not grasp where the real opportunities lie, seldom makes a worthwhile invention.

  • The reward of a great teacher lies in the success in later life of his students.

  • Teachers are a vital ingredient in the long and delicate process by which the young mind attains the ability to make informed wise choices between alternatives at any level of simplicity or sophistication. The teacher's task... is to guide the student mind in its search for knowledge–the gathering of information, the understanding of its implications and applications, the consequent growth of knowledge, and, it is to be hoped, the ultimate growth of wisdom.

  • One learns about teaching by observing teachers, by being taught, by teaching, and by thinking about it. Above all, it depends upon the realization that teaching is an art, as elusive as the art of painting or sculpture, that it is an individual art, developed by each man for himself, that it must be genuine and not forced, and that its mastery can bring joy and satisfaction.

  • He taught me pride of scholarly accomplishment. And he never said a word to me on that subject.

  • If a college or university is permeated with a spirit of success, so will its students be, and one who expects success is well on the way to attaining it.

  • For every professional man...an understanding of human relations, the acquisition of a sound and effective grasp and practice in regard to them, is fully as important as excellence in the knowledge of facts and principles applicable to the area in which he operates.

  • The basic function of education is to ensure that the experience of one generation may be passed on to the next. It is the ability to make this transfer that distinguishes man from beast.

  • As an actual fact, much of the failure of management is due to a mistreatment of simple elementary principles rather than to any lack of handling of complex affairs.

  • Alongside the course of mathematics of electric circuits, we need a course in the history of ideas. And we need that balance whenever older minds seek to help younger minds on the way of life.

Random Tidbits

  • What work needs to be done to remove the constraints preventing today's impossibles from becoming tomorrow's amazing?
  • Preparing Tomorrow's Business Leaders, Drucker
  • Bush's Meet the Press interview in 1959
  • Bush's article on the memex


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