A visionary and an internet pioneer

June 17, 2022
by Mark Ollig

Not too many people have heard of Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider.

He was born in St. Louis, MO, on March 11, 1915, and developed an early interest in building model airplanes and working on automobiles.

In 1937, Licklider graduated from Washington University in St. Louis, receiving a bachelor of arts degree in psychology, mathematics, and physics.

After receiving a Ph.D. in psychoacoustics in 1942 from the University of Rochester, NY, he went on to work at Harvard University’s Psycho-Acoustic Laboratory in Cambridge, MA.

In 1950, he became an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

During the early 1950s, Licklider worked on designing new technology for displaying computer information to human operators, which improved US air defense capabilities.

Licklider then turned his thoughts to human-computer interactions.

The Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) was established on Feb. 7, 1958, by President Dwight Eisenhower, in response to the Soviet Union’s Sputnik satellite program, which many Americans were concerned with at the time.

By 1960, Licklider predicted, “It seems reasonable to envision, for a time 10 or 15 years hence, a thinking center that will incorporate the functions of present-day libraries together with anticipated advances in information storage and retrieval.”

Licklider wrote a paper in March 1960 titled “Man-Computer Symbiosis.”

In it, he wrote, “It seems entirely possible that, in due course, electronic or chemical machines will outdo the human brain in most of the functions we now consider exclusively within its province.”

Licklider wrote about the need for computer involvement in formative and real-time thinking.

He described a computer assistant that could perform simulation modeling, which would graphically display the results. He also wrote about how a computer could determine solutions for new problems based on past experiences and be able to answer questions intelligently.

He spoke of interactive computers serving as automated assistants, and 62 years ago, many people were listening to him.

In 1960, Licklider foresaw an interdependent relationship between future computers and human beings.

He wrote about a “Galactic Network,” providing a pathway for sharing and retrieving data and programs from any computer interconnected within this network from anywhere in the world.

Licklider recognized the importance and potential of a fast-moving electronic data computer network and reasoned computers could share and distribute their programs and informational resources across interconnected data networks to a multitude of human operators, which is the basic foundation of the internet.

Collaborating with Welden E. Clark,  Licklider released a 16-page paper in August 1962 titled “On-Line Man Computer Communication,” describing the concepts of future online networks and how computers would play the role of a teacher.

“Twenty years from now [1982], teachers will undoubtedly introduce some form of keyboard operation in kindergarten, and forty years from now [2002], keyboards may be as universal as pencils,” Licklider wrote.

Imagine telling him in 1962 that we would be typing on flat glass keyboards and talking to our computers and other intelligent smart devices. It would not surprise me if he smiled and nodded.

In October 1962, Licklider was chosen as the first director of the Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO) research program at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Licklider gained acceptance and support regarding his computer networking ideas and helped guide the funding of several computer science research projects.

While at DARPA, Licklider was involved in developing one of the first wide-area computer networks used in the United States for a cross-country radar defense system.

This network system connected many Department of Defense sites, including the Strategic Air Command (SAC) headquarters and the Pentagon.

In 1963, Licklider obtained IPTO funding for the research needed to study how users in different geographic locations could operate time-sharing computers.

In 1965, Licklider published the book “Libraries of the Future,” describing people living in different geographic areas using digital computers to access knowledge library databases stored within interconnected computers over a “lattice hierarchy” he calls a network.

IPTO originally began the development of the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) in 1966, which led to today’s internet.

During the early 1960s, Licklider estimated that by 2000, millions of people would be using what he called an “Intergalactic Computer Network,” or a networking system he envisioned as “an electronic commons open to all” and “the main and essential medium of informational interaction for governments, institutions, corporations, and individuals.”

In December of 2000, his vision of an Intergalactic Computer Network we know today as the internet became accessible to 361 million users worldwide.

Today, the internet reaches five billion users worldwide or 63%of the planet’s population.

Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider (also known as JCR) passed away on June 26, 1990, in Arlington, MA, at age 75, having lived to see the birth of today’s internet.

One year earlier, in 1989, the World Wide Web, aka The Web, was invented by computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee while working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland.

Be sure to visit the Bits and Bytes weblog at https://bitscolumn.blogspot.com.

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