05/12/2021

019 – Time sharing – 1960

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People tend to overestimate what can be done in one year
and to underestimate what can be done in five or ten years.  Joseph Licklider

By the early ‘60s mainframe computers proliferated and there grew a pressing need for users to communicate via these devices.  Ad hoc approaches emerged for users of the same unit, but between computers proved elusive; each system so different, without any standards for messages to pass between them.

Every academic institution and research agency had customised its hardware and software – a ‘Tower of Babel’ cacophony of different approaches.  Something needed to be done.

Lick Licklider had developed his skills at MIT and Harvard and was a VP at Bolt, Beranek & Newman, a high-tech R&D organisation initially focused on acoustics.  BBN analysed the sound from films taken of JFK’s assassination and deletions in the Nixon Watergate tapes.  Its techniques made it one of the most sophisticated early users of computers.

1960 Licklider’s paper ‘Man-Computer Symbiosis’ proposed that the human-machine interface needed to be improved.  He had run a self-analysis showing he used 85% of his time preparing to think, getting facts and figures assembled, plotting analyses and making calculation; thus only 15% of his time was available for thinking.  He hoped that symbiosis would improve the latter.

‘It seems reasonable to envision, for a time 10 or 15 years hence, a ‘thinking center’ that will incorporate the functions of present-day libraries together with anticipated advances in information storage and retrieval.  The picture readily enlarges itself into a network of such centres, connected to one another by wide-band communication lines and to individual users by leased-wire services.’

1962 With a colleague at BBN, Welden Clark, Licklider issued the paper ‘On-line Man-Computer Communication’.  It detailed that while humans were good at decision-making and analysis they were quite slow.  Computers were better placed to store and retrieve data faithfully and could, of course, run computations more reliably.

They proposed the need for time-sharing on these expensive computers and looked forward to an era of computer-based learning and computer-aided design, ‘…Although more interactive multi-access computer systems are being delivered now, and although more groups plan to be using these systems within the next year, there are at present perhaps only as few as half a dozen interactive multi-access computer communities.’

‘…twenty years from now some form of keyboard operation will be taught in kindergarten, and forty years from now keyboards may be as universal as pencils…’  ‘…In a few years, men will be able to communicate more effectively through a machine than face to face.’

Licklider’s paper in August 1962, ‘The Intergalactic Computer Network’, caught the attention of ARPA.  He was lured from BBN to run a behavioural science department and ARPA’s Information Processing Techniques Office, IPTO. 

Licklider agreed the funding of Doug Engelbart’s ARC, MIT’s Project MAC and other network projects at Stanford, UCB, UCLA and SDC.  He is credited with helping to ignite networking and the Internet.

Licklider would later inspire in turn both Ivan Sutherland and Bob Taylor who in succession would take over the reins at ARPA’s IPTO.

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