J.C.R. Licklider and Interactive Computing

A SAGE operator’s terminal Image: Joi Ito

On March 11, 1915, American psychologist and computer scientist J.C.R. Licklider, known simply as J.C.R. or “Lick“, was born. He is particularly remembered for being one of the first to foresee modern-style interactive computing and was one of the most distinguished Internet pioneers.

J.C.R. Licklider (1915-1990)

J.C.R. Licklider (1915-1990)

Licklider was born in St. Louis, Missouri and his engineering talents became clear pretty early, when he built model airplanes as a child. He enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis, where he received a bachelor of arts degree in 1937. Licklider received his master degree one year later, majoring in physics, psychology, and mathematics. After receiving a PhD in psychoacoustics from the University of Rochester in 1942, Licklider moved to Harvard where he started working at the Psycho-Acoustic Laboratory. There, he conducted field experiments in B-17 and B-24 bombers during the war years to investigate the effects of high altitudes on voice communication and static noise and other sources of interference on radio receivers.

Licklider’s interest in information technologies evolved in the late 1940s. His early ideas foretold of graphical computing, point-and-click interfaces, digital libraries, e-commerce, online banking, and software that would exist on a network and migrate wherever it was needed. The scientist moved to MIT, where he was appointed associate professor and served a committee that established a psychology program for engineering students. Also, he worked on the SAGE-Program, a Semi-Automatic Ground Environment creating a computer-aided air defense system. Licklider worked there as a human factors experts, which convinced him of the great potential for computer interfaces. When a research group on the human factor was set up in 1953 in the psychology section of MIT’s economics department, Licklider took the lead and took a handful of his most intelligent colleagues and students from Lincoln Lab. The group was transferred to the social psychologists of work management at the Sloan School of Management in 1954, but dealt with completely different management problems. Licklider then explored a new field of interest and by a rather accidental encounter at the Lincoln Lab with computer architect Wesley A. Clark he got to know the computer TX-2, which he had constructed in 1958. The TX-2 was one of the first computers to display interactive graphics on screen. Licklider was fascinated by the meetings he had with Clark, who from then on took up an ever-increasing part of his time and turned away more and more from psychology to computer science.

Licklider became a Vice President at Bolt Beranek and Newman, Inc., where he bought the first production PDP-1 computer and conducted the first public demonstration of time-sharing. At DARPA, Licklider continued his career, where he became the head of the Information Processing Techniques Office. Shortly after, he was named Director of Behavioral Science. This version led to the precursor of today’s internet, the ARPAnet.[5Licklider also did some seminal early work for the Council on Library Resources, imagining what libraries of the future might look like and describing them as “thinking centers.” Licklider became part of the MAC project at MIT, where a large mainframe computer was designed to be shared by up to 30 simultaneous users, each sitting at a so called typewriter terminal. The first computer time-sharing system and one of the first online setups with the development of Multics were established.

Based on research at BBN, he summed up his visions in 1960 in the groundbreaking article Man-Computer-Symbiosis, with which he established his reputation as a computer scientist in a broad scientific public because they were counted among the boldest and most imaginative visions of those days. Particularly since they came from a psychologist who hadn’t had specialist knowledge of computers four years earlier, they received additional attention. In the article, Licklider described the concept of a simpler interaction between man and computer, and his ideas were summarized in a central thesis:”A close connection between man and” the electronic members of the partnership “would eventually lead to cooperative decision-making processes.” In addition, human decisions would be made with the help of computers, but without “inflexible dependency on pre-defined programs“. Computers should, of course, be available for tasks that they can do best, which Licklider believes are routine tasks, while people can use the energy and time they gain to make better insights and decisions.

During his active years in computer science, Licklider managed to conceive, manage, and research the fundamentals that led to modern computers and the Internet as we know it today. His 1960 scientific paper on the Man-Computer Symbiosis was revolutionary and foreshadowed interactive computing. This inspired many other scientists to continue early efforts on time-sharing and application development. One of the scientists funded by Licklider’s efforts was the famous American computer scientist Douglas Engelbart, whose efforts led to the invention of the computer mouse.[4]

In August 1962, in a series of memos, Licklider described a global computer network that contained almost all the ideas that now characterize the Internet. With a huge budget at his disposal, he hired the best computer scientists from Stanford University, MIT, UCLA, Berkeley and selected companies for his ARPA research. He jokingly described this approximately a dozen or so researchers, with whom he had a close exchange, as the “Intergalactic Computer Network“. About six months after starting his work, he distributed an opinion in this unofficial panel, criticizing the problems of the proliferating multiplication of different programming languages, debugging programs and documentation procedures and initiating a discussion on standardization, as he saw this as a threat to a hypothetical, future computer network.

At yovisto academic video search, you may be interested in the 1972 documentary ‘Computer Networks: Heralds of the Resource Sharing‘, which shows some great people (including J.C.R Licklider) who were designing and operating open networks which were eventually developed to what we now know as the Internet.

References and Further Reading:

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