Select your localized edition:

Close ×

More Ways to Connect

Discover one of our 28 local entrepreneurial communities »

Be the first to know as we launch in new countries and markets around the globe.

Interested in bringing MIT Technology Review to your local market?

MIT Technology ReviewMIT Technology Review - logo


Unsupported browser: Your browser does not meet modern web standards. See how it scores »

{ action.text }

Lick couldn’t do much about his idea immediately, since networking technology wasn’t even close to being ready. So instead he talked (and talked, and talked), trying to sell the notion to anyone who would listen, confident that he was planting a seed that would grow.

Meanwhile, he had a program to run. Lick presided over his far-flung community in much the same way he’d run his research groups at MIT and BBN-with a mix of parental concern, irrepressible enthusiasm and visionary fervor. True, his nonstop stream of ideas and suggestions could be exasperating; the recipients sometimes felt as though their sponsor’s imagination was voyaging among the stars while they were still struggling to build a biplane. But Lick was more interested in being a mentor than a micromanager: As long as people made reasonable progress in the right direction, he would let them find their own way.

At ARPA, program managers traditionally moved on after a year or two to give someone else a chance, and Lick was no exception. But in September 1964, when he left ARPA for the IBM research laboratory, he took care to find a successor who shared his vision. His choice was Ivan Sutherland, a 26-year-old computer graphics genius from MIT’s Lincoln Lab whose doctoral project, Sketchpad, was the ancestor of today’s computer-aided design software.

Lick’s influence would continue to be felt at ARPA for more than a decade. Sutherland’s successor in 1966 would be Robert W. Taylor, who shared with Lick a background in psychology and who was probably Lick’s most enthusiastic convert to the symbiosis vision. It was Taylor who would inaugurate the actual development of Lick’s proposed computer network, which began operation in 1969 as the ARPAnet and ultimately evolved into the Internet. And it was Taylor who went on to head the computer group at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC)-where, during the 1970s, researchers turned Lick’s notion of symbiosis into a working system. PARC’s radical developments included the first graphics-based personal computer, the Ethernet local-area network and the laser printer. When Taylor left ARPA in 1969, he handed the reins to ARPAnet architect Larry Roberts, another computer graphics maven who had become intrigued with networking after a late-night bull session with Lick.

Lick always insisted, with characteristic modesty, that he had accomplished very little in his two years at ARPA. In a narrow sense, he had a point. Essentially nothing was happening in September 1964 that had not already been underway in one form or another when he arrived at the agency.

And yet, Licklider’s impact was profound. When ARPA presented him with a never-to-be-repeated opportunity to turn his vision into reality, he had the guts to go for it. Once he had the Pentagon’s money in hand, Lick had the taste and judgment to recognize good ideas and good people. He had the competence and integrity required to win their respect. And he had the overarching concept-human-computer symbiosis-that let each of his disciples feel like a part of something much larger than themselves. Most important, by funneling so much money into research at universities, where most of it actually went to support students, he guaranteed that his vision would live on after him.

“It seems to me that Licklider and ARPA were mainly about winning the hearts and minds of a generation of young scientists, and convincing them that computer science was an exciting thing to do,” says James Morris, chair of the Carnegie Mellon computer science department. “In the aftermath of Sputnik, the glamour field was physics, not computing. Lots of very smart people made a career decision to go into a field that didn’t exist yet, simply because ARPA was pouring money into it.”

0 comments about this story. Start the discussion »

Tagged: Computing

Reprints and Permissions | Send feedback to the editor

From the Archives


Introducing MIT Technology Review Insider.

Already a Magazine subscriber?

You're automatically an Insider. It's easy to activate or upgrade your account.

Activate Your Account

Become an Insider

It's the new way to subscribe. Get even more of the tech news, research, and discoveries you crave.

Sign Up

Learn More

Find out why MIT Technology Review Insider is for you and explore your options.

Show Me