J.C.R. Licklider and the Rise of Interactive and Networked Computing

J.C.R. Licklider and the Rise of Interactive and Networked Computing

Tami K. Tomasello (East Carolina University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-368-5.ch001


This chapter examines J.C.R. Licklider’s legacy as a contributor to the development of modern networked computing. In 1960 Licklider published his seminal “Man-Computer Symbiosis,” the first of three articles that attempted to redefine the human-computer interaction. Licklider outlined a vision for interactive, networked computing and, ultimately, the Internet that we experience today. Providing an overview of Licklider’s role as a visionary of the computerized communication networks of today, this chapter pays particular attention to the main ideas conveyed in “Man-Computer Symbiosis” and the influence of these ideas on academic and professional researchers during the following decades.
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Contrary to what one might expect of a computer visionary, Licklider’s career did not originate in computing; in fact, computer science as a formally recognized field would not develop until many years after Licklider had articulated his vision of networked computing (Hafner & Lyon, 1998). Instead, his studies began in “physiological psychology,” the field known today as neuroscience. In particular, Licklider investigated the brain’s ability to understand speech in the presence of signal distortion (Waldrop, 2001). These early studies helped Licklider to understand the workings of the human brain and prepared him to foresee the potential for improved human-computer interactions, which, in turn, enabled him to hold prestigious academic and governmental positions later in life.

Born March 11, 1915 in St. Louis, Missouri, Licklider was the only child of Margaret and Joseph Licklider. In his youth and throughout life, Licklider possessed “a lively sense of fun, an insatiable curiosity, and an abiding love of all things technological” (Waldrop, 2001, p.8). Highly intelligent and inquisitive, Licklider was also known for his sense of humor and self-effacing nature. In 1937, Licklider earned a triple degree in physics, mathematics, and psychology from Washington University. A year later, he earned a master’s in psychology from the same university and then began doctoral studies at the University of Rochester in 1938, where his dissertation “made what may well have been the first maps of neural activity on the auditory cortex” (p. 13), which helped to identify those areas of the brain that are responsible for interpreting sound frequencies.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Electronic Numerical Integrator and Analyzer (ENIAC): An early electronic computer developed in the 1940s by the U.S. Army to calculate missile trajectories.

Internet: The global network of computers used to exchange information and communication.

Time-Sharing: The ability of a computer to process multiple commands and/or accommodate multiple users simultaneously without compromising performance.

ARPANET: The U.S. experimental computer network that in 1969 successfully interconnected four geographically separated computers located at the Stanford Research Institute, University of California at Los Angeles, University of California at Santa Barbara, and University of Utah.

Man-Computer Symbiosis: The human-computer relationship in which human and machine are closely coupled in performing both lower (e.g., computational) and higher order (e.g., analytical) processes.

Interactive Computing: The immediate exchange of input and output between a computer and the user.

Computer Network: A cluster of computers and related devices that are connected via permanent or temporary, wired or wireless technologies.

Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE): A 1950s “network” of defense radars which involved real-time computing with human operators using keyboards, screen displays, and modems.

Input/Output Device: A peripheral or internal computer component that enables data to be entered and/or extracted. Examples of input/output devices include: internal and external disk drives, microphones, scanners, printers, keyboards, screens/monitors, and speakers.

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