Few know him, and the work of Joseph Licklider has been fundamental in building the internet as it is today

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Not all the people who make very relevant contributions in the field of science or technology are known by the general public. Joseph Carl Robnett Lickliderreferred to by his colleagues by the diminutive ‘Lick’, is one of those people.

This American mathematician, physicist and psychologist born in Missouri (United States) in 1915 has gone down in history for his indisputable contributions in the field of computing.

Many of the texts that tell us about him describe him as a scientist with amazing intuition. And there is no doubt that this vision faithfully describes what was possibly one of the qualities that allowed him to stand out among his peers.

In fact, Robert Taylor, the founder of the prestigious research center Xerox PARC, confessed that many of the innovations developed by his team were clearly inspired by at work for ‘Lick’.

From psychoacoustics to computer science in the midst of the Cold War

After completing his college education in mathematics, physics, and psychology at the University of Washington, Licklider decided to continue studying to further his knowledge in one of the fields he was passionate about: psychoacoustics.

JCR Licklider

In 1942 he received his doctorate in this discipline from the University of Rochester, which led him to work as a professor and researcher in this area at Harvard University until the end of that same decade. However, during this stage of his life, ‘Lick’ discovered another of his great passions: computing.

In 1950 he began working as a professor of engineering at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), and was soon selected to participate. in the SAGE project (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment).

This research initiative sought to develop an infrastructure for interconnected computers that it was capable of collecting the information generated by a radar system in anticipation of a possible Soviet air attack (we must not overlook the fact that this project was born in the middle of the Cold War).

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During this project Licklider realized how important it was to design a graphical interface that it be as user-friendly as possible and allow operators to use the computers with less effort.

And, in addition, he perceived the need to design a system of large-scale interconnection that facilitated the communication of computers housed in physical locations that did not necessarily have to be close.

His ideas were decisive in ARPANET, the forerunner of the Internet

After seven years of research and teaching at MIT, Licklider dabbled in private business for five years, and in 1962 he was hired as head of the Office of Information Processing Techniques at MIT. HARPthe US Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency.

This was precisely the stage of his professional career during which Licklider matured some of the ideas which were subsequently collected by other researchers to shape many of the technologies we use today.

His proposal was so inspiring that it was decisive in strengthening the pillars of ARPANET, the forerunner of the internet network.

One of the ideas that he shared with his colleagues at ARPA was to design a computer network that would facilitate the exchange of information and the distribution over time of the hardware resources of this infrastructure. His proposal was so inspiring that it was decisive in strengthening the pillars of ARPANET, the forerunner of the internet.

Interestingly, Licklider has not gone down in history as a scientist with a large patent portfolio; his contributions, in reality, were conceptual constructions, engineering strategies and design principles that he pursued inspire other researchers. That’s how this innovator managed to make a difference.

And it is that its footprint remains at the root of many of the technologies that we all use on a daily basis, such as, for example, graphical interfaces, electronic commerce, cloud computing, modern operating systems, and even the personal computer.

His footprint remains at the root of many of the technologies we all use on a daily basis.

In the late 1960s Licklider returned to MIT as a professor of electrical engineering, and in the final stretch of his career, in the late 1970s, he co-founded with several MIT Infocom faculty and students, a software company that it acquired a certain prestige as a video game developer, and that it was bought by Activision in 1986.

Joseph Licklider died in Arlington, Massachusetts, in 1990. His entire professional career was devoted to science in general, and computer science in particular, and his legacy remains on many of the devices and services most of us use every day.

One last note to conclude: if you want to delve deeper into the life and contributions of this scientist, and you defend yourself with English, I suggest you read the book ‘The Dream Machine: JCR Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal’ , written by M. Mitchell Waldrop. Is a fabulous portrait from ‘lick’.

Images | Federico Orlandi | US National Library of Medicine

Not all the people who make very relevant contributions in the field of science or technology are known by the…

Not all the people who make very relevant contributions in the field of science or technology are known by the…

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