Joseph Carl Robnett "Lick" Licklider

1915 - 1990

   "If the network idea should prove to do for education which a few have envisioned [...] surely the boon to humankind would be beyond measure."   


J.C.R. Licklider saw the future. The future he saw is what makes it possible for you to be reading this right now. His name isn't a household word, but it should be.

He was born in an outlying part of St. Louis on March 11, 1915, later to attend Washington State University where he earned three bachelor's degrees -- Math, physics and psychology. Going on this he positioned himself as an Experimental Psychologist specializing in psychoacoustics, the study of how the brain interprets and processes sound and speech, one of the first researchers in that field. His research for the Department of Defense, MIT and BBN are still staples of acoustic and linguistic theory today, 50 years later.

Another pivotal accomplishment was is the actual structure of academia. Before Lickliders' work with ARPA (which I'll get to later), Universities would not give Ph.D's in Computer Science -- Electrical Engineering, sure, but that was in general electrical engineering; when He demonstrated that Computer Science was a field unto itself, the US Government started funding universities to grant Ph.D degrees in Computer Science. Licklider helped establish such degree programs at four universities, which are still the leaders in the field: U.C. Berkeley, MIT, CMU, and Stanford.

Still, for all his experimental and progressive psychology work, Lick is primarily known for one great and spurious brainwave: the idea that computers should all be connected and share information and processing power with each other and present the sum of this combined power to the user. Lick was the first person to develop the idea of the modern computer network and today's internet.

Wait a minute, I know what you're saying -- you're saying that Vannevar Bush had already thought of this in the 1930's, long before Lickliders' first scribblings about it in 1958. But that's not quite true.

The differences with Bushes and Licklider's visions are important. Memex, the information storage and retrieval system designed by Bush was purely a library system where the viewing terminals on the users end were really just televisions showing data, and the data repository was just a place for electrified text. Licklider's vision extended this in that he felt that it could be even better to have computers communicate inteligently to share their capacities by way of data storage, memory and computing power to make many computers work in concert for all users, even going so far as to foretell the idea of the search engine almost 25 years before the idea became actually feasible. J.C.R.'s visions was strongly influenced by Vannevar's, but the refinement of the visions is most important. Licks designs behind his ideas of the "Intergalactic Computer Network" are best described by himself:

About 85 per cent of my "thinking" time was spent getting into a position to think, to make a decision, to learn something I needed to know. Much more time went into finding or obtaining information than into digesting it.

Throughout the period I examined, in short, my "thinking" time was devoted mainly to activities that were essentially clerical or mechanical: searching, calculating, plotting, transforming, determining the logical or dynamic consequences of a set of assumptions or hypotheses, preparing the way for a decision or an insight. Moreover, my choices of what to attempt and what not to attempt were determined to an embarrassingly great extent by considerations of clerical feasibility, not intellectual capability.

While he did some interesting computer work at BBN Starting in 1959 (BBN purchased their first "electronic computer", a Royal McBee LPG-30, at his insitance), his work their was primarily in accoustics since BBN was an accoustic consulting company at the time. Licks research into the "computer network" concepts really took off when, in 1962, he was appointed as Director if IPTO 1963-4, the Information Processing Technology and Behavioral Sciences Department. From here he helped fund research into timesharing and eventually was a key figure in the organization of that little under appreciated thing called the 'ARPANET'.

After ARPA/IPTO, Lick became manager of Information Sciences fir IBM in 1964 and after a brief four-year vacation became Director of Project MAC at MIT, as well as a professor of Electrical Engineering. He remained at MIT in various capacities, finally "finishing up" as Professor Emeritus at MIT.

He published a number of both books and papers that where as groundbreaking as the rest of his ideas including "Man-Computer Symbiosis", "Libraries of the Future" and "The Computer as Communication Device", These dealt with, among other topics, he and his colleges visions of what computers would eventually evolve into and were some of the first works to posit the ideas of the computer as a communications tool as well as a computational device.

J.C.R. Licklider passed on June 26, 1990 due to complications from Asthma, not long after his awarding of the Commonwealth Award for Distinguished Service. While he never received as much public recognition as he deserved, he was able to see the brief first visions of the internet and computer networks that we take completely for granted today.

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