JCR Licklider and computing

J.C.R. Licklider and his Dream Machine of personal computing

We interact with computers to help us think.

Both in the transactional sense that these machines can help us solve math problems or search across a vast array of indexed information, and in the deeper sense that we can patter our own behaviors around how a computer solves a problem. This wasn’t always inevitable.

Before the invention of the keyboard, computer mouse and graphical interface, and certainly before the government-funded creation of the internet, computers were seen charitably as oversized and expensive calculators. They may seem today like an appliance that is as valuable to our quality of life as an indoor toilet or a heating system. It took vision to make the change.

The people (yes, especially a particular man) behind that vision is the focus of The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal, a 2001 book by science journalist M. Mitchell Waldrop. The book tells the story of J.C.R. Licklider (1915-1990) and his role in the development of the modern personal computer. Licklider, a psychologist and computer scientist, was one of the pioneers of the concept of “interactive computing,” which envisioned a future in which computers would be accessible and easy to use for individuals, rather than just large institutions.

The book’s title comes from Licklider’s vision that a computer that would be an “intelligent partner” to its user, an electronic medium that would help people communicate and share information easily.

The book covers Licklider’s work at MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and later at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), where he helped to fund and support the development of the first personal computers, as well as the creation of the internet. The book also examines Licklider’s influence on the development of computer science and its impact on modern society. For my interests, the book includes lots of other personal stories.

My notes from the book are below for future reference:

My notes:

  • JCR Licklider was one of the first to champion that
  • MIT Sloan “Technology is the application of science, engineering, and industrial organization to create a human built world”
  • Licklider went to Swarthmore for his PHD
  • Aug 1944, young mathematician Herman Goldstine recognized legendary John von Neumann getting on train in Aberdeen Proving Ground headed for Philadelphia. They made a connection and Goldstine told him about ENIAC
  • Hitler drove intellectuals from Europe and helped Von Neuman establish Princeton
  • Von Neumann was in New Mexico consulting but not satisfied with the three known high computing tools that Warren Weaver had identified for him:
    • Howard Aiken at Harvard was naval focused and and not as powerful;
    • George Stibitz at Bell Labs was on Model 3 but too bulky to be replicated and
    • Astronomical Computing Center at Columbia was using conventional IBM Tabulators
  • Then von Neumann met Goldstine on that train, and was told that Moore School was working on the ENIAC. Weaver knew about ENIAC but perhaps hadn’t thought it was far enough along, or perhaps overlooked it because ENAIC was assumed to be an overly ambitious boondoggle by a desperate US Army
  • Computing used for artillery trajectories among other military purposes
  • John Mauchly (1907-1980) at Ursinus was brought to Moore by an army-funded course to transition more electrical engineers for war
  • Goldstine was a mathematician so didn’t know why John Mauchly’s idea for vacuum tube computer was considered impossible. Goldstine got a meeting for Mauchly and Eckert with the U.S. Army, where they were granted $150k and then $400k (almost $10 million in today’s dollars) — considered a massive sum.
  • Other academics thought this was too speculative; in turn, Goldstine was critical of others. After visiting the new Rockefeller analyzer at MIT, Goldstine wrote “it was, I think, a pretty sad spectacle of what the Supermen at NDRC can do “
  • June 1, 1943 Project PX was officially launched
  • When Von Newman visited the Moore School on September 7, 1944, the ENIAC construction hadn’t even begun, but he was impressed enough with the team and plans that he became a consultant on the project
  • Logician Kurt Gödel showed that mathematical logic did have limits, which was a big intellectual question of the 1930s — how far could logic in computing take us?
  • Intellectual celebrity Von Neuman wrote a draft report that took all the attention away from Macaulay and Eckert; Penn also wanted credit for hosting the project
  • Feb 14 1946 was likely the first time the word “computer” was used to describe a machine in press coverage of ENIAC l;
  • The Army didn’t want anyone to patent the shared program innovation of ENIAC, and so it went into the public domain. This shared program innovation was a precursor to hardware-software divide. Yale computer scientist David Gelernter has compared software-hardware to music and instrument (the piano is used for both Bach and blues)
  • McCarthy got Rockefeller Foundation funding for a six week conference via the proposal he sent on August 31, 1955 with the title “a proposal for the Dartmouth summer research project on artificial intelligence, “the earliest use of the AI term that even got a joke in the New Yorker about the need for “natural intelligence (161)
  • Homebrew Compute Club launches in Menlo Park March 1975
  • 433 Apple Computer origins
  • National science foundation‘s role and ARPA
  • Al Gore coined the term “information superhighway” in a 1986 Senate report, echoing his father’s role in establishing the interstate highway in senate

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