Joseph C. R. Licklider died when he was 75, on June 26, 1990.
His death was caused by a heart attack that followed because of complications from asthma. Licklider was born in St. Louis, Missouri and educated at Washington University and the University of Rochester. There he received his three bachelor’s degrees in math, physics, and psychology. Licklider was well liked and had a very good reputation for being very humble, often letting others take credit for his ideas. Licklider humility and good manners were probably part of his mid-western upbringing.
Licklider came to Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1950. Previously, he had worked at Harvard University’s Psychoacoustics Laboratory, where he discovered that “clipped speech” was 70-90 percent intelligible. Professor Licklider’s background was in the psychology of communications, and he played a major role in stimulating linguistics research at MIT while contributing to the study of biological characteristics of communication. Licklider lectured on the neurophysiology of vision and hearing, the perception of speech, and the presentation and absorption of information. J.C.R. Licklider’s contribution to the development of the Internet consists of ideas not inventions.
He foresaw the need for networked computers with easy user interfaces. His ideas foretold of graphical computing, point-and -click interfaces, digital libraries, e-commerce, online banking, and software that would exist on a network and migrate to wherever it was needed. He has been called, “Computing’s Johnny Appleseed,” a well-deserved nickname for a man who planted the seeds of computing in the digital age. Licklider planted his symbolic seeds at two very important places. Most importantly, he worked for several years at ARPA, which is Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, where he set the stage for the creation of the ARPANET.
Licklider worked at Bolt Beranek and Newman, the company that supplied the first computers connected on the ARPANET. He did his doctoral work in psychoacoustics. In 1942, he went to work at Harvard’s Psychoacoustics Laboratory where he did work for the Air Force to find solutions for the communication problems faced by crewman in noisy bomber aircraft. Joseph Licklider worked on a Cold War project called SAGE designed to create computer-based air defense systems against Soviet Union bombers. Lick became increasingly interested in computing thereafter. Coming to the world of computing from a psychology background gave Lick a unique perspective.
Computing at the time consisted mainly of batch-processing operations. Large problems would be outlined in advance and operations coded onto paper punch cards that were then fed into computers in large batches. The whole process was very time-consuming and if any of the variables changed or were not planned for in the beginning the process had to be repeated. Lick had seen that computing could be different when he worked on the SAGE project.
The SAGE computer worked in real time. Information was fed into the machine and it produced results almost immediately. Lick believed computer development had to proceed more in that direction in order for computers to become really useful. Lick continued to imagine great uses for computers.
In 1965, he wrote a book called Libraries of the Future, in which he discussed how information could be stored and retrieved electronically.