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Joseph Licklider

Last Edit: 07/04/17

Joseph "Lick" Licklider was a pioneering computer scientist who envisaged a 'Intergalactic Computer Network'. Licklider was born on the 11th of March, 1915, and was affectionately referred to as "the Lick" by his close associates. Robert Taylor said that Licklider was a modest man who enjoyed a joke at his own expense. Licklider studied at Washington, Rochester and Harvard throughout the 1930's and 1940's, before eventually becoming a professor at MIT in 1950. At MIT, Licklider would co-found the world renowned MIT Lincoln Laboratory, and worked on the SAGE project. Licklider worked for Bolt Beranek and Newman technologies in the late 1950's, and built one of the earliest time-sharing systems.

Joseph Licklider, black and white photo, director of the IPTO from 1962 - 1964
(Pictured: Joseph Licklider)

Licklider was an academic who taught psychology, and wrote notable papers within that academic field, but, it is perhaps for his work in computer networking that he is best remembered. In 1960, he published a paper named "Man-Computer Symbiosis" which stated the following "Man-computer symbiosis is an expected development in cooperative interaction between men and electronic computers. It will involve very close coupling between the human and the electronic members of the partnership. The main aims are 1) to let computers facilitate formulative thinking as they now facilitate the solution of formulated problems, and 2) to enable men and computers to cooperate in making decisions and controlling complex situations without inflexible dependence on predetermined programs." Bob Taylor stated that "Man-Computer Symbiosis" created a "guide for decades of computer research".

Licklider's conception of a man-computer relationship was, influenced, no doubt, by his previous work at MIT on the SAGE System and his work at BBN that built a time-sharing system. Licklider would be made director of ARPA's Information Processing Techniques Office in 1962. Licklider used his influential as the IPTO director to promote the idea of a global computer network that would connect people across the globe. Licklider outlined this idea in the 1963 memorandum "Members and Affiliates of the Intergalactic Computer Network" which he forwarded to: Dr. Donald L. Driukey, J.I. Schwartz, R. von Buelow, Dr. D. C. Engelbart, Dr. John H. Wensley, Dr. John McCarthy, R. Harry D. Huskey, George W. Brown, Alan J. Perlis, Allen Newell, Edward Fredkin, Benjamin M. Gurley, Robert M. Fano, Fernando J. Corbato, Marvin Minsky and Dr. Glen Culler. The IPTO had the largest budget in the United States for computer research and Licklider used this budget to fund research into time-sharing systems and subsequently computer networking. His influence as director of the IPTO would lead to creation of graduate courses in computer science at leading universities and would inspire his successors to carry on his work.

Licklider left ARPO in 1964, but before doing so he managed to persuade Ivan Sutherland and Robert Taylor to continue funding research into a feasibility of a 'wide area' computer network. Robert Taylor would outline a plan for this network in 1966-1967, and the network (ARPANET) was built in 1968-1969. Licklider would co-author a paper with Bob Taylor in 1968 called "The Computer as a Communication Device" which concluded "For the society, the impact will be good or bad, depending mainly on the question: Will "to be on line" be a privilege or a right? If only a favored segment of the population gets a chance to enjoy the advantage of "intelligence amplification," the network may exaggerate the discontinuity in the spectrum of intellectual opportunity. On the other hand, if the network idea should prove to do for education what a few have envisioned in hope, if not in concrete detailed plan, and if all minds should prove to be responsive, surely the boon to humankind would be beyond measure." It would appear that Licklider's and Taylor's hope has come to fruition, with Internet coverage increasing year on year, and plans to connect the developing world - specifically Africa - taking shape.

Licklider continued to work within the field of computer science after leaving ARPO, and helped to develop the Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS) opeating system. CTSS would inspire the development of operating systems like Unix. Licklider died in 1990 and a memoriam was published for him by Robert Taylor.