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Forgotten Revolutionary

As eloquent testimony to the success of Lick’s strategy, consider that during the late 1960s and early 1970s, at the height of the Vietnam debacle, when many people viewed governments and institutions of all kinds as instruments of oppression and punch-card belching mainframes as a potent symbol of tyranny, a rising generation of students was beginning to think of computers as liberating. This was the generation that would gather at Xerox PARC. And this was the generation-together with the students they taught-who would engineer the personal computer revolution of the 1980s and turn the ARPAnet into the Internet and then create the World Wide Web. The list is a long one, including Alan Kay of the University of Utah, who in 1968 came up with the notion of a notebook computer called the “Dynabook”; Dan Bricklin of Project MAC, who invented VisiCalc, the first electronic spreadsheet; Bob Metcalfe of Project MAC, inventor of Ethernet and founder of 3Com; John Warnock of Utah and PARC, founder of Adobe Systems; and Bill Joy of Berkeley, co-founder of Sun Microsystems. Even now, people who never heard of J.C.R. Licklider fervently believe in what he dreamed of, because his ideas are in the very air they breathe.

Why, then, have most people never heard of him?

One reason is that Lick wasn’t the kind of person modern-day computer journalists like to write about. He didn’t start a company, or create best-selling software. He wasn’t a mediagenic guru. He seemed to be just another government bureaucrat from back in technology prehistory. Moreover, Lick wasn’t even very successful as a bureaucrat, at least not after he left ARPA. Two exasperating years at IBM sent him back to MIT in 1966; the computer giant’s corporate culture was grounded so firmly in mainframes and batch-processing that Lick saw no chance to convert the company to human-machine symbiosis in his lifetime. His rocky stint as director of Project MAC, from 1968 to 1971, strained many an old friendship there; Lick’s loathing for paperwork made him a disastrous manager. A second tour at ARPA, from 1974 to 1975, was even worse: In the post-Vietnam environment, the free-wheeling computer research program he had founded was mired in demands for immediate military relevance. A colleague who watched him there likened it to a Christian being fed to the lions.

And Lick wasn’t a young Christian anymore. By the time microcomputers hit big in the early 1980s, he was pushing 70. Just as his ideas of personal computing and networking were coming to fruition, he was losing the vigor to contribute significantly to the cause. His hands had a noticeable tremor-a condition that would eventually be diagnosed as Parkinson’s disease. His allergies had crossed the line into asthma, and he never went anywhere without an inhaler. In the end, it was the asthma that finally caught up with him: An attack left his brain without oxygen too long, and Lick died without regaining consciousness in June of 1990.

But mainly, we haven’t heard of Lick because he refused to toot his own horn. He seems to have been one of those rare beings who genuinely didn’t care who got the credit, so long as the goal was accomplished. Psychologist George Miller, who worked with Licklider at Harvard during World War II, remembers him as “extremely intelligent, intensely creative, and hopelessly generous” with his ideas.

Forty years later, Stuart Malone discovered much the same quality. In the early 1980s, Lick had taken Malone and a number of other undergraduates under his wing. He made sure they had a space of their own, a common area they painted green and called “The Meadow.” He got them exclusive use of one of the lab’s VAX/750 computers, which they immediately equipped with a Unix password: lixkids. He had made them feel part of something much larger than themselves. And, of course, he had said not a word about his own past-which was why Malone was so astonished at Lick’s retirement dinner in 1985. “There were hundreds of people there from MIT, from DEC, from PARC, from the Defense Department,” he recalls, “all standing up and crediting Lick with giving them a chance to do their best work.”

David Burmaster, who had been Lick’s assistant at Project MAC, will never forget it. “I’d felt I was the only one, that somehow Lick and I had this mystical bond. Yet during that evening I saw that Lick had had this amazing relationship with-a hundred? Two hundred? I’m not sure even how to count them. And everybody he touched felt that he was their hero, and that he had been an extraordinarily important person in their life.”

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