J. C. R. Licklider

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J. C. R. Licklider (almost universally known as Lick to his co-workers) was one of the most influential computer scientists, both in vision, and in actions.

In vision, he was one of the first who foresaw that computers would be used, not just for calculations, but to handle information in general. (Remember that computers grew out of devices whose purpose was purely to aid in mathematical work, and that was still the main task to which they were being put at the time; although they had begun to be used in business is significant ways, starting with LEO.) Drawing on his background in experimental psychology, he then took the next step, in his paper Man-Computer Symbiosis, to visualize a coming pairing of human and machine intelligence - a vision which is only now starting to appear.

As part of that vision of the future, he may have been the very first to foresee that these new computers which he visualized being connected to each other in a world-wide network, exchanging information. His paper on the topic, Memorandum for: Members and Affiliates of the Intergalactic Computer Network, was a key early step on the path to the Internet.

He also took actions which were major achievements in creating that future which he foresaw. During his tenure as a program director at ARPA, he funded work which led to modern-style interactive computing (including today's canonical graphical user interface), such as Douglas Engelbart's Augmentation Research Center. He pushed forward the development of time-sharing, used on essentially all computers that humans use now (even on personal computers, which use time-sharing to support multiple windows) during his time at ARPA. His vision of a data network, and studies he started while he was at ARPA, inspired Larry Roberts, who succeeded him at ARPA, to build the ARPANET - which eventually led to the Internet.


This quotation from the dustjacket of the excellent biography of him, The Dream Machine, portrays his importance:

"More than a decade will pass before personal computers emerge from the garages of Silicon Valley, and a full thirty years before the Internet explosion of the 1990s. The word computer still has an ominous tone, conjuring up the image of a huge, intimidating device hidden away in an overlit, air-conditioned basement, relentlessly processing punch cards for some large institution: them.
"Yet, sitting in a non-descript office in McNamara's Pentagon, a quiet .. civilian is already planning the revolution that will change forever the way computers are perceived. Somehow, the occupant of that office .. has seen a future in which computers will empower individuals, instead of forcing them into rigid conformity. He is almost alone in his conviction that computers can become not just superfast calculating machines, but joyful machines: tools that will serve as new media of expression, inspirations to creativity, and gateways to a vast world of online information."

Further reading

M. Mitchell Waldrop, The Dream Machine: J. C. R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal, : Viking Penguin, New York, 2001

External links