Dr. Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider, better known as “Lick,” left an indelible imprint on the history of computers and computer communications. He initiated three important developments in information technology: the granting of Ph.D.’s in computer science, time-sharing, and networking. Dr. Licklider described the vision for computer networking as early as August 1962 in a series of memos at BBN when he coined the phrase: “Intergalactic Computer Network.” He will describe the difficulties that preceded his involvement in the creation of the first computer network: the Arpanet. In fact, this interview becomes more a discussion of his views of technological management rather than an investigation of the details of his accomplishments. Those discussions can be found in many places, whereas this look back by Lick is somewhat more reflective.
It was a tremendous honor to call on Dr. Licklider at his home in Arlington, MA. I was nervous and felt underprepared. There was so much I could have, and really should have, read, and even better engaged others in discussion, but I had not, and it was June, and roughly half the interviews had yet to be conducted. In addition, I felt self-imposed guilt and pressure that I was not creating new revenue for my “firm” and partners. The door opens and I say, “Dr. Licklider,” and he says, “please call me ‘Lick’.” He leads the way to his living room where his wife, Louise, greets me: I am no longer nervous but feel graciously welcomed, and at ease. I sit on the couch and start setting up the recorder. Louise asks if we want anything, we decline. Lick then pulls up a clearly favorite wooden chair opposite me, sits and says he is not sure he can help me, but asks what questions do I have. Not surprisingly, Lick throughout comes across as a warm-hearted, generous and accomplished leader who easily shares the credit for so much that happened.
In this interview, Lick notes that most innovations are dependent on other innovations becoming ready. He reminded me of Paul Baran’s dictum in our discussions of the history of computer communications that innovators are like “one standing on the shoulders of those who came before them. So please enjoy the words of Lick, who consistently deflects any special place in history, and was a pure joy to be with.
This interview focuses on Dr. Licklider’s involvement with Project MAC at MIT, the Arpanet, being the first Director of ARPA’s IPTO, his role in promoting networking and his thoughts on science research and management.
Keywords: MIT, Project MAC, ARPA IPTO, Arpanet