Internet Pioneers

J.C.R. Licklider

Much like Vannevar Bush, J.C.R. Licklider's contribution to the development of the Internet consists of ideas not inventions. He foresaw the need for networked computers with easy user interfaces. His 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 to wherever it was needed. He has been called, "Computing's Johnny Appleseed," a well-deserved nickname for a man who planted the seeds of computing in the digital age. (Waldrop, 2000).

Licklider planted his metaphorical seeds at two very important places. Most importantly, he worked for several years at ARPA where he set the stage for the creation of the ARPANET. He also worked at Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN) the company that supplied the first computers connected on the ARPANET.


Licklider was called"Lick" by everyone who knew him. He was well-liked and had a reputation for being humble almost to a fault, often letting others take credit for his ideas as long as they were accomplished. His modesty and good manners were probably part of his mid-western upbringing. Lick was born in St. Louis in 1915.He attended Washington State University in St. Louis where he received three bachelor's degrees in physics, math, and psychology. He did his doctoral work in psychoacoustics (the psychophysiology of the auditory system). In 1942, he went to work at Harvard's Psychoacoustics Laboratory where he did work for the Air Force to find solutions for the communication problems faced by crewman in noisy bomber aircraft.

In 1950, Lick moved to MIT where he got his first real taste of computing. He worked on a Cold War project called SAGE designed to create computer-based air defense systems against Soviet bombers. Lick became increasingly interested in computing thereafter. Coming to the world of computing from a psychology background gave Lick a unique perspective. Computing at the time consisted mainly of batch-processing operations. Large problems would be outlined in advance and operations coded onto paper punch cards which were then fed into computers in large batches. Technicians then waited for the results.

The whole process was very time-consuming and if any of the variables changed or were not planned for in the beginning the process had to be repeated. Lick had seen that computing could be different when he worked on the SAGE project. The SAGE computer worked in real time. Information was fed into the machine and it produced results almost immediately. Lick believed computer development had to proceed more in that direction in order for computers to become really useful.

Man Computer Symbiosis

In 1960, Licklider published his groundbreaking work "Man Computer Symbiosis." The main idea of the paper was that computers should be developed with the goal "to enable men and computers to cooperate in making decisions and controlling complex situations without inflexible dependence on predetermined programs" (Licklider). Lick was, of course, thinking about real time interactive computing. Computers would effectively and quickly do routine work. Processing speed and easy user interfaces would allow humans to interact with computers in making decisions instead of simply responding to long-awaited output. This way of computing would mean that problems would not have to be formulated in depth in advance because computers would be able to respond to changing variables. Lick's proposed system would not use the traditional batch processing methods, but rather the time sharing method, which gives many users at individual terminals access to a large mainframe. Users thus interact directly with the computer instead of relying on technicians and punch cards. Results are obtained immediately.

Man Computer Symbiosis was inspired by an informal experiment Lick conducted with himself as the subject. He decided to keep track of how he spent his time at work:


"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. Hours went into the plotting of graphs, and other hours into instructing an assistant how to plot. When the graphs were finished, the relations were obvious at once, but the plotting had to be done in order to make them so. At one point, it was necessary to compare six experimental determinations of a function relating speech-intelligibility to speech-to-noise ratio. No two experimenters had used the same definition or measure of speech-to-noise ratio. Several hours of calculating were required to get the data into comparable form. When they were in comparable form, it took only a few seconds to determine what I needed to know.

"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." (Licklider).

Man computer symbiosis would augment human intellect by freeing it from mundane tasks. This idea may not seem revolutionary in today's world of ubiquitous personal computers, but in the days of batch processing it was. The fact that Man Computer Symbiosis was written be a newcomer to the field of computer science made it even more amazing. Robert Rosin, a computer science student at MIT who had taken one of Lick's psychology courses in 1956 recalls, " For the life of me, I could not imagine how a psychologist who, in 1956, had no apparent knowledge of computers, could have written such a profound and insightful paper about 'my field' in 1960," (Rosin in Hafner & Lyon, 35).

Lick at BBN

In 1957, Lick went to work for Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN), an architectural acoustics design firm. He persuaded them to buy a $25,000 computer. Lick was not sure what they would do with the computer, but knew there were potential uses. BBN soon after acquired a second computer, a Digital Equipment PDP-1 for $150,000. Lick began hiring young talented computer engineers to the BBN staff. The company began focusing more and more on computers and earned a reputation as a computer consultant firm. In 1968, ARPA began accepting bids to build the first computers that would compose the ARPANET. BBN was positioned to bid and they won, thanks to Lick's earlier influence.

Lick at ARPA

In 1962, Jack Ruina, director of ARPA, asked Lick to head up two ARPA departments: Behavioral Sciences and Command and Control (which deals with making timely decisions and having them carried out by forces in the field). As an added incentive he would have a Large computer, a Q-32, at his disposal. The Air Force had acquired the computer but then given it to ARPA in 1961. One of Lick's main tasks would be to find better uses for computers other than numerical calculation.

Lick sought out the leading computer research institutions in the U.S. and set up research contracts with them. Soon there were about a dozen universities and companies working on ARPA contracts including Stanford, UCLA, and Berkeley. Lick jokingly nicknamed his group the Intergalactic Computer Network. This group would later form the core who created the ARPANET.

In 1963, Lick wrote a memo to members of the Intergalactic Computer Group making a case for standardization among the various computer systems used by members of the group. Lick wanted the researchers to be able to build upon each others' work. Their physical distances from each other and incompatible computer systems made this difficult. If the various computers could be connected researchers could easily communicate data between them. Lick was proposing a network. "It will possibly turn out that only an rare occasions do most or all of the computers in the overall system operate together in an integrated network. It seems to me important, nevertheless, to develop a capability for integrated network operation" (Lick in Hafner & Lyon, 38).

Lick went on to further describe his hypothetical network:

"If such a network as I envisage nebulously could be brought into operation, we could have at least four large computers, perhaps six or eight small computers, and a great assortment of disc files and magnetic tape units-not to mention remote consoles and teletype stations-all churning away" (Lick in Waldrop)

He even described software that would exist only on the network and could be used by any connected machine when needed. This idea was realized decades later with the creation of JAVA.

Lick never implemented his vision. He left ARPA the next year, but in a few years his ideas were implemented with creation of the ARPANET. Larry Roberts, the principal architect of the ARAPNET, later recalled the importance of lick's ideas:


"Lick had this concept of the intergalactic network which he believed was everybody could use computers anywhere and get at data anywhere in the world. He didn't envision the number of computers we have today by any means, but he had the same concept-all of the stuff linked together throughout the world, that you can use a remote computer, get data from a remote computer, or use lots of computers in your job. The vision was really Lick's originally. None oof us can really claim to have seen that before him nor{can} anybody in the world. Lick saw this vision in the early sixties. He didn't have a clue how to build it. He didn't have any idea how to make this happen. But he knew it was important, so he sat down with me and really convinced me that it was important and convinced me into making it happen" (Roberts in Segaller, 40).

Lick had definitely left his mark on ARPA. When he had arrived, the Command and Control Research Department had focused on computer-simulated war games. He changed the focus to research in time-sharing, computer graphics, and improved computer languages. The name of the office was changed to reflect its new focus. Its new name was the Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO). The changes brought about by Lick set the stage for the creation of the ARPANET only a few years after he left.

Libraries of the Future

Lick continued to envision great uses for computers. In 1965, he wrote a book called Libraries of the Future, in which he discussed how information could be stored and retrieved electronically. (Although he had not read Vannevar Bush's "As We May Think," he realized that Bush's ideas had been diffused through the computing community enough to have provided a base for his own ideas (Licklider 1965, xii). His theoretical information network, which he called a "procognitive system" sounds remarkably similar to Tim Berners-Lee's World Wide Web: "the concept of a 'desk' may have changed from passive to active: a desk may be primarily a display-and-control station in a telecommunication-telecomputation system-and its most vital part may be the cable ('umbilical cord') that connects it, via a wall socket, into the procognitive utility net" (Licklider 1965, 33). This system could be used to connect the user to: "everyday business, industrial, government, and professional information, and perhaps, also to news, entertainment, and education."(Licklider 1965, 34).

J.C.R Licklider's ideas had a profound effect on the development of computer technology and the development of the Internet. He had a vision of man computer symbiosis whereby human intellect could be augmented. He instilled that vision in others who implemented them. Naturally quiet and humble, Licklider never achieved any great amount of fame or widespread recognition. He died in 1990 from complication from an asthma attack.

For Further Reading

Dream Machine, The : J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal




Home| Vannevar Bush | J.C.R. Licklider | Larry Roberts | Paul Baran |
Bob Metcalfe |
Doug Engelbart | Vint Cerf | Ted Nelson | Tim Berners-Lee |
Marc Andreesen
| Epilogue | References |