J. C. R. Licklider: Computing’s Johnny Appleseed

John Carl Robnett Licklider was a preeminent multi-disciplinary engineer.  He demonstrated engineering abilities at an early age. He enjoyed building model airplanes and refurbishing old cars. In 1937 he attended Washington University in St Louis and triple majored in psychology, physics and mathematics. He went on to attain a PhD in Pycho Acoustics from the University of Rochester. His doctoral thesis was titled “An Electric Investigation of Frequency Localization in the Auditory Cortex of the Cat”.

His post doctoral appointment was to Swarthmore College as a war research associate in 1942. The following year he went on to the Pycho Acoustical Laboratory at Harvard to study the factors that were involved in how people verbally communicate at high altitudes between air crewmen and through aircraft radios.

In 1950, he moved on to MIT, where his work on air defense projects led to the establishment of the Lincoln Laboratories. There, he conducted the first computer experiments that were incorporated into the Semi Automatic Ground Environment air defense network, or SAGE. This work led him to learn digital computer programming as digital was faster than that of analog computing.

In 1957, he was  hired to work with old colleagues at Bolt, Beraneke and Newman Incorporated, or BBN. He was appointed Vice President and was head of several departments, including Information Systems research. He wanted computers to be more interactive and he was inspired by the graphic interface and real time response of the old SAGE terminals. He disliked how computer users had to make large sets of punch cards and how the computer took up all it’s processing time on one task.

This led to Licklider writing a paper titled “Man-Computer Symbiosis.” He discusses his own frustrations with the time consuming process computing was. He stated that computers should become not just human tools but partners, to the point where humans were the helpers of computers more than the helped. This would free people from the mundane task of calculating and allow them to follow more creative pursuits.

Licklieder then requested BBN to purchase a computer, for about 30,000 dollars. When asked why, he said he didn’t know but thought that BBN could use it for defense contract work. News spread of BBN’s interest in computer research. A computer scientist named Ken Olsen brought his PDP-1 computer to BBN to have it beta tested by Licklider. The PDP-1 was used to establish one of the first time sharing networks, a system by which four people could use a single computer at once.

In 1963, Licklider was to work briefly for the Advanced Research Projects Agency at the Defense Department. He convinced two researchers ,Sutherland and Taylor, that the network demonstrated at BBN could be used across large distances and could pool resources from different institutions. The network ARPA developed, the ARPAnet, was used to link the University of California, MIT and Systems Development Corporation with ARPA and is considered to be the prototype of the modern day internet. However, Licklider left ARPA before any of this was implemented.

Licklider returned to MIT in 1966 to run Project MAC. The project centered around a large mainframe computer that could support 30 users at once. The mainframe was used to research artificial intelligence and operating system software. The operating system the main frame used was the basis for the elements used in Unix, the first multiuser OS.

Licklider retired from MIT in 1985 and passed away in Arlighton, Virginia in 1990.









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