Often, says Tim Anderson, thinking back to the mid-1970s and his time as a student at MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science, you’d walk into the terminal room and there he’d be: Professor J.C.R. Licklider, typing code with his own 10 fingers.
This took some getting used to. Lick, as everyone called him, wasn’t a hacker, but an absent-minded-professor-type in his 60s. “He’d sit there with a bottle of Coke and a vending machine brownie as if that were a perfectly satisfactory lunch,” recalls Anderson, who is now the chief technology officer at an Internet startup known as Offroad Capital. “He had these funny colored glasses with yellow lenses; he had some theory that they helped him see better.”
Anderson wasn’t sure what Lick was working on-something to do with making computer code as intuitive as ordinary conversation, and as easy as drawing a sketch. The programs he wrote weren’t so hot, but that almost didn’t matter. For Lick the important thing was imagining the future-and an astonishing amount of what we now take for granted owes its origins to his work. He would hold forth for hours in his wry Missouri accent, spinning visions of graphical computing, digital libraries, online banking and e-commerce, computers with megabytes of memory, software that would live on the network and migrate wherever it was needed-all this 10 years before the Macintosh, 20 years before the popularization of the Web.
What Lick never got around to mentioning was that he had done as much as anyone on earth to make such wonders possible. In fact, the big, rumpled guy in the corner office had laid the foundations for time-sharing, point-and-click interfaces, graphics and the Internet-virtually all of modern computing. “He was clearly the father of us all,” says Anderson. “But you’d never know it from talking to him.”