Wednesday, September 23, 2009

J.C.R. Licklider: Network Visionary

J.C.R. Licklider was one of the most influential people in the field of HCI with respect to networking. His vision sparked the original idea for the ARPANet, the first network, which eventually led to the creation of the internet.

The story begins in 1957 when Eisenhower was President and the Soviet Union had just put Sputnik into space. The Secretary of Defense, at the time, proposed a new agency to handle R&D programs in order to stay ahead of the Soviet Union’s scientific advancement. Two of the proposed agencies were NASA – National Aeronautics and Space Administration and ARPA – Advanced Research Projects Agency. ARPA was the first agency to be created and was charged with handling satellite and space R&D programs to the disdain of the military. However, the military would not let it be and in 1958, with the creation of NASA, the programs were stripped from ARPA and given to NASA. ARPA was left with few programs, much less money and on the verge of being abolished. Fortunately, ARPA’s purpose was re-formulated and they were now charged with advanced research. In 1961, a new director was hired, Jack Ruina, who let the scientists in the agency choose their own projects.

At the same time all of this was unfolding in Washington, J.C.R. Licklider, a professor at MIT, was learning about SAGE – Semi Automatic Ground Environment, a computer created to be an early warning system for the military against hostile missiles and a new computer called the TX-2. It would be an extreme understatement to say he was intrigued. Around this time, he had also written a paper entitled Man-Computer Symbiosis in which he postulated “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…The picture readily enlarges itself into a network of such centers, connected to one another by wide-band communication lines and to individual users by leased-wire services. In such a system, the speed of the computers would be balanced, and the cost of the gigantic memories and the sophisticated programs would be divided by the number of users” (J.C.R. Licklider, 1960). Obviously, Licklider saw the potential for computers to be linked together and for man to work in a beneficial “relationship” with computers. What he did not know was how to make it happen or how big it would actually become once it was made public.

In 1962, Ruina reached out to Licklider and a colleague named Fred Frick in hopes of hiring them at ARPA. They decided, after meeting with Ruina, one of them should take the job and the decision was made with literally the flip of a coin. Licklider took the position and was charged with exploring the idea of time-sharing, something he had learned about while at MIT, to find a way to link the DOD’s computers that sat in various locations. Time-sharing was the idea that many people should be able to access and get information from a central computer thereby sharing its information instead of only having it on a single machine. At his disposal for this task would be a powerful computer that ARPA had acquired from the military. Computers in these days were huge, taking up an entire room and were extremely expensive.

Licklider knew that colleges and universities had some of the brightest students with compelling ideas, so he set forth to set up research contracts with many of these universities. Lickliders budget for this project was astronomical, ranging from $5 to $9 million dollars and using this he was able to successfully set up contracts with such universities as Stanford and UCLA, among others, where some of the most interesting research in information technology was being conducted. No one had ever thought to tap into universities as a resource for research until Licklider. Six months after starting at ARPA, Licklider drafted a memo in which he “expressed his frustration over the proliferation of disparate programming languages, debugging systems, time-sharing system control languages, and documentation schemes” between the computers with which he was working and the computers at the universities conducting the research. He further goes on to propose “the situation in which several different centers are netted together….” providing ARPA with the idea for the first network (Hafner & Lyon, 38). Turning these ideas into reality was not Lickliders’ specialty; that would be left up to someone else.

In 1964, Licklider left the agency after choosing Ivan Sutherland as his successor. Sutherland, at the time, was the “world’s leading expert in computer graphics” (Hafner & Lyon, 39). Sutherland soon hired Bob Taylor, who was working at NASA and had already been exposed to Lickliders’ ideas after joining a committee headed by Licklider himself a few years prior. Taylor, almost immediately, took notice of the fact that there were three different computers in his office alone with different information on each and, as Licklider had before him, began to wonder how to connect them and share their information. His project would eventually extend to attempting to connect the computers at the various research universities as well as the computers in his office so they could share ideas and resources amongst one another. Taylor set out to find the person who could turn this idea into reality. The person he wanted, Larry Roberts, had already linked two computers a continent away, but was not interested in leaving his current job at, coincidentally enough, MIT’s Lincoln Labs (Hafner & Lyon, 45). Coincidental because Lincoln Labs was one of the research organizations that ARPA was funding. After much ado, Larry Roberts finally conceded and took the job at ARPA, a decision that would change networking forever. A few years after starting at ARPA, 1967 to be exact, Roberts held a meeting with ARPA’s investors from the research universities and companies. He proposed networking their computers together to share their ideas and resources, but part of the proposal involved using one of the computers at each site as a host. The investors did not want to part with any of their resources and Roberts had to devise a new plan if he wanted this to move forward. His next proposal involved bringing a small computer, called an Interface Message Processor, to each site that would serve as the communicator for the others; enabling them to effectively speak the same language and understand one another. This idea was accepted and work began to create these small computers. The contract would eventually go to Bolt Beranek and Newman, the place where Licklider once worked quite successfully. The computers were then produced, delivered and set up at the first two sites and, in October of 1969, were finally connected creating the ARPANet.

J.C.R. Lickliders’ ideas and dedication were infectious to nearly everyone with whom he came in contact. He was instrumental in sparking the idea that led to the creation of the ARPANet and without his vision; the network and the internet may have taken much longer to come to fruition. He truly was a historical and influential figure in the field of HCI.

Works Cited
1. Licklider, L.C.R. (1960). "Man-Computer Symbiosis." IRE Transactions on Human Factors in Electronics, v.HFE-1. p.4-11.
2. Hafner, K. & Lyon, M. (1996). Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster.
3. Roberts, Lawrence G. "Internet chronology 1960 - 2001." 2001. Web.

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