Tuesday, March 11, 2014

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.

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, psycholoy, 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.

J.C.R Licklider
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.

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 Sciences Command & Control Research at ARPA. Licklider foresaw the need for networked computers with easy user interfaces and in the same year of starting at ARPA, he developed his first outline for a time-sharing network of several computers which he tried to establish. This version led to the precursor of today's internet, the ARPAnet. Licklider 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.

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.

At yovisto, 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.

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