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The Dream Machine, Chapter 1
Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider did tend to make an impression on people. Even in the early days, long before he got involved with computers, he had a way of making everything look so easy.
"Lick was probably the most gifted intuitive genius I have ever known," declared the late William McGill in an interview recorded shortly before his death, in 1997. McGill explained in that interview that he had first met Lick when he entered Harvard University as a psychology graduate student in 1948: "Whenever I would finally come to Lick with the proof of some mathematical relation, I'd discover that he already knew it. He hadn't worked it out in detail, he just . . . knew it. He could somehow envision the way information flowed, and see relations that people who just manipulated the mathematical symbols could not see. It was so astounding that he became a figure of mystery to all the rest of us: How the hell does Lick do it? How does he see these things?
"Talking with Lick about a problem," added McGill, who would later serve as president of Columbia University, "amplified my own intelligence about thirty IQ points."
Lick made a similarly deep impression on George A. Miller, who first worked with him at Harvard's Psycho-Acoustics Laboratory during World War II. "Lick was the All-American Boy-tall, blond, and good-looking, good at everything he tried," Miller would write many years later. "Extremely intelligent, intensely creative, and hopelessly generous-when you made a mistake, Lick persuaded everyone that you had just brought off the cleverest possible joke. He loved jokes. Many of my memories have him telling ofsome amusing absurdity, usually at his own expense, while he gestured with a Coca-Cola bottle in one hand."
It wasn't that he cracked people up, exactly. It was just that when Lick held forth with that laconic Missouri twang and lopsided grin, his listeners somehow found themselves smiling. He came at the world with a sunny, open-faced friendliness that made it seem as though everyone he met was going to be just great. And somehow, for him, everyone usually was.
He was a Missouri boy from way back. The name itself (pronounced LICK-lye-der) had originated generations earlier in Alsace-Lorraine, along the French-German border, but his family on both sides had lived in Missouri since before the Civil War. His father, Joseph Licklider, had been a farm boy from the middle of the state, near the town of Sedalia. Joseph also seems to have been a determined and resourceful young man. In 1885, after his own father died in an accident involving a horse, the twelve-year-old Joseph at once took on responsibility for his family. Realizing that he, his mother, and his sister couldn't hope to manage the farm on their own, he moved them all to St. Louis and went to work for one of the local railroads until he had put his sister through high school and college. Once that was done, Joseph apprenticed himself to an advertising firm to learn the crafts of writing and design. And once he had mastered those skills, he switched to insurance, eventually becoming a prizewinning salesman and head of the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce.
Meanwhile, at a Baptist youth revival meeting, Joseph Licklider had caught sight of a Miss Margaret Robnett. "I took one look at her," he later said, "and heard her sweet voice singing in the choir, and I knew I'd found the woman I loved." He immediately started taking the train out to her family's farm every weekend, determined to win her as his bride. He succeeded. Their only child was born in St. Louis on March 11, 1915. He was named Joseph for his father, and Carl Robnett for his mother's late brother.
The baby's sunny outlook was understandable. Joseph and Margaret were rather old for first-time parents in those days-he was forty-two, and she was thirty-four-and they could be quite strict in matters of religion and good behavior. But they were also a warm, loving couple who adored their little boy and doted on him constantly. Everyone did: young Robnett, as they called him at home, was not just an only child but the only grandchild on either side of the family. As he grew, moreover, his parents encouraged him in piano lessons, tennis, and whatever else he wanted to try, especially if the activity was at all intellectual. And Robnett did not disappoint them, maturing into a bright, energetic boy with a lively sense of fun, an insatiable curiosity, and an abiding love of all things technological.
When he was twelve, for example, he and just about every other boy in St. Louis conceived a passion for building model airplanes. Maybe it was the burgeoning aircraft industry in their hometown. Maybe it was Lindbergh, who had just made his solo flight across the Atlantic in an airplane named the Spirit of St. Louis. Or maybe it was simply that airplanes were the technological wonders of the age. No matter: the boys of St. Louis were model-airplane-mad. And nobody could build them better than Robnett Licklider. With his parents' permission, he turned his room into something resembling a lumberyard for balsa wood. He bought directions and plans, and drew up detailed designs of his own. He cut out balsa-wood members and struts with painstaking care. And he stayed up all night putting the pieces together, covering the wings and body with cellophane, painting it all just so, and doubtless getting a little high on airplane glue. He was so good at it that one of the kit-manufacturing companies paid his way to a national air show in Indianapolis so he could show the visiting fathers and sons how it was done. And then, with the approach of that all-important sixteenth birthday, his interest shifted to cars. It wasn't just that he wanted to drive them around; he wanted to understand them, inside and out. So his parents allowed him to buy an old junker, on the condition that he drive it no farther than the end of their long, curving driveway. Young Robnett happily took that car apart and rebuilt it again and again, starting up the engine each time he added a piece just to see what happened: "Ok, so that's how that works." Margaret Licklider, fascinated by this technological prodigy she had raised, would stand by as he worked underneath the car and hand down the tools as he needed them. Her son got his license on March 11, 1931, the day he turned sixteen. And for years thereafter, he refused to pay more than fifty dollars for a car; whatever shape it was in, he could fix it up and make it go. (Faced with the ravages of inflation, he was eventually forced to raise his limit to $150.)
The sixteen-year-old Rob, as he was now known to his classmates, had grown up tall, handsome, athletic, and outgoing, with sun-bleached hair and blue eyes that gave him a notable resemblance to Lindbergh himself. He played a fiercely competitive game of tennis (and would continue to do so until his early twenties, when a back injury took just enough of the edge off his game that he quit). And of course, he had impeccable southern manners. He had to: he was surrounded by impeccable southern ladies. The Lickliders' home in University City, the suburb around Washington University, was a huge old house that they shared with Joseph's mother; Margaret's married sister and her husband; and Margaret's other, unmarried sister. Every evening from the time Robnett was five, it had been his duty and honor to take the arm of his maiden aunt, escort her to the dinner table, and hold out her chair for her like a gentleman. Even as an adult, Lick would be known as a remarkably courteous and considerate man who rarely raised his voice in anger, who nearly always wore a coat and tie even at home, and who found it almost physically impossible to remain seated when a woman entered the room.
But Rob Licklider was also maturing into a young man whose mind was very much his own. When he was a very small boy, according to a story he often told in later years, his father had served as a lay minister in their local Baptist church. Whenever Joseph preached, it was his son's job to crouch under the keyboard of the organ and operate the instrument's foot bellows for the church's elderly lady organist, who couldn't quite manage them by herself. One sleepy Sunday evening when Robnett was just about to nod off down there, he heard his father exhort the congregation, "Those of you who seek salvation, stand up!" So he instinctively leapt to his feet-and smashed his head against the bottom of the keyboard. Instead of finding salvation, he saw stars.
This experience, Lick would say, gave him an instant insight into the scientific method: Always be extremely careful in your work-and in your proclamations of faith.
Three quarters of a century after the fact, of course, it is impossible to know whether young Robnett really learned those lessons by slamming into a keyboard. But to judge from his attitudes in later life, he definitely learned them somewhere. Underlying his meticulous craftsmanship and insatiable curiosity was a complete lack of patience for sloppy work, easy solutions, or glib answers. He refused to be satisfied with the ordinary. The young man who would later talk of the "Intergalactic Computer Network" and publish professional papers with titles like "The System System" and "The Gridless, Wireless Rat-Shocker" possessed a mind that was constantly probing, and constantly at play.
He also possessed a streak of mischievous anarchy. When confronted by officious stupidity, for example, he would never challenge it directly; the belief that a gentleman never caused a scene was bred into his bones. But he loved to subvert it. When he pledged the Sigma Chi fraternity during his freshman year at Washington University, he was informed that pledges had to carry two kinds of cigarettes with them at all times so that upperclassmen could demand a smoke at any hour of the day or night. Not being a smoker himself, he promptly went out and bought the foulest Egyptian cigarettes that St. Louis had to offer. Nobody bothered him for a smoke more than once.
Meanwhile, that restless refusal to be satisfied with the ordinary was leading him on a roundabout quest for his purpose in life. He was already changing his identity to an extent. He had been "Robnett" at home and "Rob" to his schoolmates, but now, perhaps as a symbol of his new status as a college man, he started introducing himself by his fraternity nickname: "Call me 'Lick.' " From then on, only his very oldest friends would have the slightest idea who "Rob Licklider" was.
As for what the college man was going to do, however-well, he would have happily majored in everything if he could have; whenever Lick heard someone wax enthusiastic about a new field of study, he wanted to try it, too. So in his freshman year he majored in art for a while, then switched to engineering. Then it was physics and math. And for one disconcerting stretch, he even majored in the real world: at the end of Lick's sophomore year, embezzlers gutted his father's insurance company, and the firm collapsed, leaving Joseph out of a job and his son without the money for tuition. Lick had to drop out for a year and go to work as a carhop at a drive-in restaurant, one of the very few jobs he could find during the Depression. (Joseph Licklider, going stir-crazy just sitting around the house with all those southern ladies, went out and found a rural Baptist congregation in need of a minister; he and Margaret would spend the rest of their days serving in one country church after another, happier than they had ever been in their lives.) But when Lick finally returned to school, bringing with him a renewed enthusiasm for higher education-plus a convertible-one of his part-time jobs was to take care of the experimental animals in the psychology department. And once he began to understand the kind of research the professors there were up to, he realized that his quest was over.
What he had stumbled across was "physiological" psychology, a line of research that was then in the midst of a remarkable period of ferment. Today it would be known as neuroscience: the precise, detailed study of the brain and how it functions.
It was a discipline with roots going well back into the nineteenth century, when scientists such as Thomas Huxley, Darwin's most forceful advocate, had begun to assert that behavior, experience, thought, and even awareness had material bases in the brain. This was a fairly radical position to be taking in an age that was considerably more literal about religion than our own. Indeed, many scientists and philosophers in the early part of the nineteenth century tried to assert that the brain was not even made of ordinary matter, but was instead the realm of the mind and the seat of the soul, transcending all physical law. The evidence, however, soon began to show otherwise. As early as 1861, a systematic study of brain-damaged patients led the French physiologist Paul Broca to make the first association of a particular mental function-language-with a specific region of the brain: a patch of the left cerebral hemisphere now known as Broca's area. By the early twentieth century, it was known that the brain is an electrical organ, with impulses propagated by billions of thin, cablelike cells known as neurons. By the 1920s, it had been established that the regions of the brain that govern motor control and the sense of touch are located in two parallel bands of neural tissue running up the sides of the brain. It was likewise known that the centers governing vision are sited at the very back of the brain-ironically, at about the farthest point from the eyes themselves-whereas the hearing centers are right where they logically ought to be: in the temporal lobe, just under the ear.
But even this work had been comparatively crude. By the time Lick encountered the field, in the 1930s, researchers had begun to make use of the increasingly sophisticated electronics technology being spun off from the radio and telephone industries. Through electroencephalography, or EEG, they could eavesdrop on electrical activity in the brain by taking precise readings from detectors placed around the outside of the head. They could also go inside the skull and apply very precisely defined stimuli to the brain itself, and then measure how the neural response propagated anywhere else in the nervous system. (By the 1950s, in fact, they would be able to stimulate and record the activity of individual neurons.) And in the process, they could begin to map out the neural circuitry of the brain in unprecedented detail. In short, the physiological psychologists had gone from the early-nineteenth-century vision of the brain as something mystical, to a twentieth-century notion of the brain as something knowable. It was a system of immense complexity, to be sure. But it was nonetheless a system-not so very different in its fundamentals from the increasingly sophisticated electronics systems that physicists and engineers were building in their laboratories.
Lick was in heaven. Physiological psychology had everything he loved: mathematics, electronics, and the challenge of deciphering that ultimate gadget, the brain. He threw himself into it-and in the process, though he certainly couldn't have known it at the time, he took his first giant step toward that office in the Pentagon. Considering all that happened later, Lick's youthful passion for psychology might seem like an aberration, a sideline, a twenty-five-year-long diversion from his ultimate career in computers. But in fact, his grounding in psychology would prove central to his very conception of computers. Virtually all the other computer pioneers of his generation would come to the field in the 1940s and 1950s with backgrounds in mathematics, physics, or electrical engineering, technological orientations that led them to focus on gadgetry-on making the machines bigger, faster, and more reliable. Lick was unique in bringing to the field a deep appreciation for human beings: our capacity to perceive, to adapt, to make choices, and to devise completely new ways of tackling apparently intractable problems. As an experimental psychologist, he found these abilities every bit as subtle and as worthy of respect as a computer's ability to execute an algorithm. And that was why to him, the real challenge would always lie in adapting computers to the humans who used them, thereby exploiting the strengths of each.
For now, however, Lick's course was clear. In 1937, he finished his undergraduate career at Washington University with a triple degree in physics, mathematics, and psychology. He stayed on for another year to earn a master's degree in psychology. (The master's diploma awarded to "Robnett Licklider" was one of the last times that name ever appeared in print.) And in 1938 he entered the doctoral program at the University of Rochester in New York, one of the nation's premier centers for research on the auditory regions of the brain, the parts that dictate how we hear.
Lick's departure from Missouri wasn't just a change in address, as it happened. For the first two decades of his life he had been a model son to his parents, conscientiously attending Baptist services and prayer meetings three and four times a week. After he left home, however, he almost never set foot in a church again. He couldn't bring himself to tell his parents about it, knowing they would be terribly hurt by his abandonment of the faith they loved. But he found the strictures of Southern Baptist life unbearably oppressive. More important, he couldn't profess a belief he did not feel. As he later remarked when asked about all that time spent in prayer meetings, "It didn't take." If many things changed, though, at least one thing stayed the same: Lick had been a star in the Washington University psychology department, and he was a star at Rochester. For his Ph.D. dissertation he made what may well have been the first maps of neural activity on the auditory cortex. In particular, he pinpointed the regions that seemed critical for distinguishing different sound frequencies, a key to our ability to hear musical pitch. And along the way he became such an expert in vacuum-tube electronics-not to mention such a creative wizard at designing experiments-that even his professors started coming to him for advice.
Lick also excelled at Swarthmore College, outside Philadelphia, where he took a temporary appointment as a postdoctoral student after receiving his Ph.D. degree in 1942. In his short time there he proved conclusively that contrary to Gestalt theories of perception, magnetic coils placed in an asymmetrical pattern around the back of a subject's skull would not cause distorted vision-though they would make the subject's hair stand on end.
In general, however, 1942 was not a good year for lightheartedness. Lick's career, like the careers of a great many other researchers, was about to take a much more serious turn.
From The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal by M.. Mitchell Waldrop. (c) August 2001, Viking, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc. used by permission.