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

Such a device needed a name, added Bush, and the analogy to human memory suggested one: “Memex.” This name also appeared for the first time in the 1939 draft. In any case, Bush continued, once a Memex user had created an associative trail, he or she could copy it and exchange it with others. This meant that the construction of trails would quickly become a community endeavor, which would over time produce a vast, ever-expanding, and ever more richly cross-linked web of all human knowledge.

Waldrop, M. Mitchell. The Dream Machine: J. C. R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal (p. 28). Kindle Edition.

Conversely, they said, if it was valid to think of the nervous system in engineering terms, then it was just as valid to think of machines in biological terms. Look at the fire-control system, correcting its aim after every shot with feedback from radar. The gun and its fire-control system operated in a completely automatic fashion, with no humans in the loop anywhere. And yet the gun seemed guided by a grimly determined intelligence.

Through feedback, said Wiener, Bigelow, and Rosenblueth, a mechanism could embody purpose.

Waldrop, M. Mitchell. The Dream Machine: J. C. R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal (p. 56). Kindle Edition.

Over lunch one day in late 1946, a group of Bell Labs researchers were grousing about the awkwardness of the term “binary digit” and deploring the lack of any good substitute (existing proposals included hybrids such as binit and bigit, both considered loathsome). But then the statistician John Tukey joined the discussion. “Well,” he asked with a grin, “isn’t the word obviously bit?” And it was.2

Waldrop, M. Mitchell. The Dream Machine: J. C. R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal (p. 81). Kindle Edition.

As I look back on them, they were social rather than technical. We argued about everything. IBM used square steel tubing for racks, MIT used L-shaped aluminum. The amount of time spent on this subject was remarkable unless one sees it (as I do now but didn’t then) as a process of getting acquainted. After a while, as the two groups began to know and respect each other, the arguments became more cogent and took place between individuals, instead of between organizations. . . . From my point of view it was a fine relationship.”

Waldrop, M. Mitchell. The Dream Machine: J. C. R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal (p. 117). Kindle Edition.

Such rules of thumb are known as heuristics, from the Greek word heuriskein, meaning “to invent” or “to discover.” Newell and Simon had accordingly made heuristic reasoning the central strategy of Logic Theorist: at each decision point, instead of blindly trying to test all possible paths, the program would apply its own rules of thumb. Its reasoning process could be paraphrased as “First try approach A; if that doesn’t work, try approach B, and so on.” For example, Logic Theorist might start with substitution, simply replacing one symbol with another symbol or perhaps with another whole expression. If that did not produce the desired theorem right away, the program might then try such things as working backward from the theorem to find intermediate expressions that might be easier to prove. In effect, Logic Theorist would go out searching for a proof—not blindly, as the brute-force algorithm would, and not with an instantaneous leap to the right answer, as the economists’ perfect rationality called for, but by a process of intelligent exploration. In effect, Logic Theorist would apply Simon’s “satisficing” strategy and proceed with bounded rationality.

Waldrop, M. Mitchell. The Dream Machine: J. C. R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal (pp. 136-137). Kindle Edition.

LUCK

I think he knew something was going wrong with him all that day , “ says Louise Licklider , thinking back to the beginning of June 1990 . “

We were driving back from a vacation trip through the Midwest , “ she explains . “ He loved to drive . But we both knew that this would be our last vacation . Robin [ still her pet name for her husband ] had asthma , which was rapidly getting worse . He had Parkinson’s that was rapidly getting worse . And now he had prostate cancer that had metastasized . So on the trip coming back , I had been steeling myself for rapid changes in our life - styles . “

On the last leg toward home , Lick seemed to be in a nostalgic , sentimental mood , as if he were very far away . “ It was unusual for him to be that far back in the past , “ she says . “ It was different enough that it caught my attention . Then when we got to the end of the Massachusetts Turnpike , there was an inn out in the countryside where we often liked to stop . So he said , ‘ Let’s go in for a martini . ‘ We did , and we sat there on the porch for a while . Finally , he said , ‘ What do you say we just sit here all afternoon ? ‘ It was a beautiful day , and he didn’t want to leave . But I said , ‘ Oh , come on , Robin ! You need to get home and rest . ‘ So we went home . And all the way in , he hummed and sang all the old love songs that were popular back when we were dating . So looking back on it later , I had to feel that he had some premonition that something was going on in his body .

” When we got home , “ Louise continues , “ he went upstairs . I was picking up the mail when suddenly he called down to me very urgently , ‘ Louise , bring me a pen ! ‘

” Louise ? “

I knew something was wrong because he never called me Louise — always Sugar , or Shuggie . So I grabbed a pen out of the kitchen — one of those silly little things you keep with a notepad — and ran upstairs . “ Linda Licklider Smith , who lived with her own family just a block away , can vividly remember being awakened by her mother’s frantic phone call , throwing on some clothes , and then running down the dark street to her parents ‘ house . “ The night was beautiful , and the silence of the street was deafening , “ she says . “ I immediately went upstairs to my parents ‘ bedroom and found my father collapsed on the floor . I tried to find a pulse , but I could not . “

The ambulance crew were able to keep Lick alive using CPR until they could get him to Symmes Hospital in Arlington , where the emergency - room doctors got his heart beating again . But his wife and daughter both knew that too many minutes had passed in the interim . “

He’s brain - dead , isn’t he ? “ Louise asked the doctors . And they said , “ Yes . “

Louise looked at the forest of tubes and pumps forcing oxygen into and out of her husband’s lungs , the IV bags dripping nutrients into his bloodstream , the electrodes and wires monitoring his heart .

” Take all that stuff off ! “ she demanded . She tried somehow to make them understand that this was a man who lived by his brains , whose greatest joy was the playful workings of his imagination , who . . .

And as gently as possible , the doctors explained that they couldn’t remove Lick’s life support , that the tiny bit of neural activity remaining in the brain stem kept him from meeting the strict definition of brain death prescribed by Massachusetts law . There was no hope whatsoever that he would regain consciousness or have any further meaningful existence , but unless and until he started breathing on his own , they were legally obligated to let the respirator keep on doing it for him .

” It was the law , “ says Louise , remembering her continued , fruitless demands . “ They had to keep it on . Eventually they took him into the intensive - care unit . “

Both Tracy and Linda returned with their mother the next morning . “ Robin was still on all the gear , “ says Louise . “ They had assigned a young doctor from MIT to the case . The kids accosted him with pictures and newspaper clippings about their father . They started talking about him and told the doctor , ‘ This is a man who would have jumped out a window if he’d known what you were doing . How can we get this stuff off of him ? ‘ “

The doctor understood and was as sympathetic as anyone could be . “ But the law says we can’t remove the life support until he starts breathing on his own , “ he told them . “ Then we can get him off within the minute . “

And there things stood , says Louise . “ Then , about the third day , I went to the ICU , and Robin was gone . I was frantic ; I just assumed that he had died . But they said no , they had taken him to room such and such . “ Miraculously , Lick had indeed started breathing on his own , which meant that the hospital staff could begin to take him off life support . “ But Robin’s heart just kept on beating , “ she says . “ They had given me permission to stay in the room overnight , so I stayed there night and day . Sometimes I’d go downstairs to take care of the grandchildren while Tracy and Linda went up to see him . But that was all . “

After several weeks , “ she goes on , “ I was just pulling up a chair for a night’s sleep , when Robin’s knee came up and went back down . In all that time he hadn’t moved a finger . But I knew there is usually a death spasm . So I told the nurse , ‘ I think he just died . ‘ And he had . “

The date was Tuesday , June 26 , 1990 . The doctors never knew exactly why Lick had collapsed and stopped breathing , according to Louise . “ Since he called for a pen , they thought it might have been a choking reflex from an asthma attack , “ she says . “ But it seemed senseless to do an autopsy . Besides , Robin had donated his corneas and anything else that was harvestable for transplant , and to use those organs they have to take them within just a few hours after death . “

Anyway , she says , “ the next morning when the kids and I went in to get his things , the young doctor who had been so good to us came up and said how glad he was for us that it was over . And you know , I was devastated when Robin died . It was a horrid loss . But nevertheless I did feel thankful . I thought about how Robin had always felt so lucky in his life : every time he was feeling bored , something new would come up , and off he would go . He loved new experiences : travel , driving , eating in new restaurants — even if the place was bad , at least it was different . But his health was rapidly disintegrating at the end . He would have been miserable in another year , when he couldn’t learn , couldn’t experiment , couldn’t teach . And then I was so thankful that Robin had gone quickly that way — because he was indisputably brain - dead from the time he finished calling me . He went out with dignity , still doing what he loved to do .

” So once I could accept the fact that he was gone , “ she says , “ I thought to myself , Well , Robin , you lucked out again . “

Waldrop, M. Mitchell. The Dream Machine: J. C. R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal (pp. 466-468). Kindle Edition.

Technology isn’t destiny, no matter how inexorable its evolution may seem; the way its capabilities are used is as much a matter of cultural choice and historical accident as politics is, or fashion.

Waldrop, M. Mitchell. The Dream Machine: J. C. R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal (p. 469). Kindle Edition.

And in the early 1960s history still seemed to be on the side of batch processing, centralization, and regimentation. In the commercial world, for example, DEC was still a tiny niche player, a minor exception that proved the rule. Almost every other company in the computer industry was following Big Blue’s lead—and IBM had just made an unshakable commitment to batch processing and mainframes, a.k.a. System/360. In the telecommunications world, meanwhile, AT&T was equally committed to telephone-style circuit switching; its engineers would scoff at the idea of packet switching when Paul Baran suggested it a few years later, and they would keep on scoffing well into the 1980s.

Waldrop, M. Mitchell. The Dream Machine: J. C. R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal (p. 469). Kindle Edition.

And in the academic world, no other agency was pushing computer research in the directions Lick would, or funding it at anything like the ARPA levels. Remember, says Fernando Corbató, “this was at a time when the National Science Foundation was handing out money with eye droppers—and then only after excruciating peer review. Compared to that, Lick had a lot of money. Furthermore, he was initially giving umbrella grants, which allowed us to fund the whole program. So there was this tremendous pump priming, which freed us from having to think small. The contrast was so dramatic that most places gravitated to ARPA. So that opening allowed a huge amount of research to get done.” Without that pump priming—or more precisely, without an ARPA animated by J. C. R. Licklider’s vision—there would have been no ARPA community, no Arpanet, no TCP/IP, and no Internet. There would have been no Project MAC—style experiments in time-sharing, and no computer utilities boom to inflame the imagination of hobbyists with wild speculations about “home information centers.” There would have been no life-giving river of cash flowing into DEC from the PDP-10 time-sharing machines it sold to the ARPA community. There would have been no windows-icons-mouse interface à la Doug Engelbart. And there would have been no creative explosion at Xerox PARC.

Waldrop, M. Mitchell. The Dream Machine: J. C. R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal (p. 470). Kindle Edition.

So in the end, about all anyone can really say is that it’s hard to play “What if?” with history. What we do know is that in our history, J. C. R. Licklider had the vision. He was given the opportunity to realize that vision. He seized that opportunity. And he succeeded beyond anything he could have hoped for. Indeed, nothing testifies more eloquently to his success than one simple fact: in the late 1960s and early 1970s, at the height of the Vietnam debacle, when governments and institutions of all kinds were viewed as hated instruments of oppression, and when punch card—belching mainframes were seen as the most potent symbol of tyranny, a rising generation of computer-science students began to think of computers as liberating. This was the generation that would build the Arpanet. This was the generation that would gather at PARC. And this was the generation—together with the students it would teach—that would engineer the personal-computer revolution of the 1980s and the networking revolution of the 1990s. Even now, people who never heard of “Man-Computer Symbiosis” or J. C. R. Licklider still fervently believe in his dream, because it is in the very air they breathe.

Waldrop, M. Mitchell. The Dream Machine: J. C. R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal (p. 470). Kindle Edition.

“I think Lick’s being at that place at that time is a testament to the tenuousness of it all,” says Bob Taylor. “It was really a fortunate circumstance. You could never get him to admit that, because he was modest to a fault. But he was a very knowledgeable person about scientific endeavor in general, and about the philosophy of science. He was a very good judge of people. And I don’t think that Ivan, or I, or anyone who’s been in that ARPA position since, has had the vision that Lick had. Most of the significant advances in computer technology—including the work that my group did at Xerox PARC—were simply extrapolations of Lick’s vision. They were not really new visions of their own. So he was really the father of it all.”

Waldrop, M. Mitchell. The Dream Machine: J. C. R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal (pp. 470-471). Kindle Edition.

The tradition at memorial services was for the MIT string quartet to play a dignified selection of Bach and Brahms. But when Vezza had asked Louise what kind of music her husband had liked, she said Dixieland. And Broadway show tunes. So he got a band to play Lick’s favorite songs—”Impossible Dream,” “Sunrise, Sunset,” and so on—in Dixieland style. “It sort of shook people up the first time they heard it,” remembers Vezza. “But then they realized, that was Lick.”

Waldrop, M. Mitchell. The Dream Machine: J. C. R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal (p. 471). Kindle Edition.

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