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The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal

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While most people may not be familiar with the name J. C. R. Licklider, he was the guiding spirit behind the greatest revolution of the modern era. At a time when most computers were big, ponderous mainframes, he envisioned them as desktop tools that could empower individuals, foster creativity, and allow the sharing of information all over the world. Working from an obscure office in the depths of the Pentagon, he set in motion the forces that could make his vision real. Writing with the same novelistic flair ...
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Overview

While most people may not be familiar with the name J. C. R. Licklider, he was the guiding spirit behind the greatest revolution of the modern era. At a time when most computers were big, ponderous mainframes, he envisioned them as desktop tools that could empower individuals, foster creativity, and allow the sharing of information all over the world. Working from an obscure office in the depths of the Pentagon, he set in motion the forces that could make his vision real. Writing with the same novelistic flair that made his Complexity "the most exciting intellectual adventure story of the year" (The Washington Post), Waldrop presents the history of this great enterprise and the first full-scale portrait of the man whose dream of a "human-computer symbiosis" changed the course of science and culture, gave us the modern world of computing, and laid the foundation for the Internet age.

"Waldrop's account of [Licklider's] and many others' world-transforming contributions is compelling." (John Allen Paulos, The New York Times Book Review)

"A masterpiece! A mesmerizing but balanced and comprehensive look at the making of the information revolution." (John Seely Brown, former director of Xerox PARC, and coauthor of The Social Life of Information)

In an age when the word "computer" still meant a big, ominous mainframe mysteriously processing punch cards, the occupant of that office-an MIT psychologist named J.C.R. Licklider-had somehow seen a future in which computers would become an exciting new medium of expression, a joyful inspiration to creativity, and a gateway to a vast on-line world of information. And now he was determined to use the Pentagon's money to make it all happen.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
Next time you send an instant message, or play a networked game, or even create a spreadsheet, give thanks to an unassuming-looking man in a nondescript Pentagon office who understood what computing could be and set in motion the forces that transformed that vision into reality. A man, J.C.R. Licklider, whose story has rarely been told -- and never with the panache of M. Mitchell Waldrop's The Dream Machine.

You will like J.C.R. Licklider once you get to know him. There's more than a little of Richard Feynmann's legendary playfulness in this man, who found himself at the heart of nearly every computing and networking revolution from the 1940s onward yet still found time to dance with his wife in the kitchen. Always there -- either as a participant, funder, or enabler -- Licklider is the ideal subject for Waldrop's wonderfully readable accounts of the seminal moments in computing. Licklider grounds a story that covers everything from Vannevar Bush's legendary Memex (which anticipated hypertext) to Claude Shannon's information theory, from von Neumann's stored-program computer to Alan Turing's "Turing Test" for artificial intelligence.

It was Licklider who led what was, in essence, the first department of "cognitive science," years before the term was invented. Later, he was among the first to discover the joys of individual, interactive computing with MIT's experimental TX-0, and the insight that followed changed the world: Humans and computers could work together as a symbiotic system, "coupled together very tightly, and the resulting partnership will think as no human brain has ever thought and process data in a way not approached by the information-handling machines we know today."

Licklider then published an extraordinary essay promoting the creation of networked "thinking centers" that "will incorporate the functions of present-day libraries together with anticipated advances in information storage and retrieval." Some 25 years later, Tim Berners-Lee invented something called the World Wide Web, but it was Licklider who defined it.

Licklider, as program director for the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency, promoted (and funded) the critical work on networking that led to Arpanet, TCP/IP, and the Internet (not to mention breakthroughs in computer graphics and interactive computing). More important, he played a pivotal role in building the community that made the Internet happen. It's that community, and what they did, which is chronicled in the second half of this splendidly told story.

Licklider died six months before Berners-Lee finished the first web browser, but his ghost is present any time you use one. If you'd like to understand how we got here -- and enjoy a rollicking good read -- you've just got to read The Dream Machine. (Bill Camarda)

Bill Camarda is a consultant, writer, and web/multimedia content developer with nearly 20 years' experience in helping technology companies deploy and market advanced software, computing, and networking products and services. His 15 books include Special Edition Using Word 2000 and Upgrading & Fixing Networks For Dummies®, Second Edition.

Publishers Weekly
Licklider was a brilliant scientist whose essential contributions to cognitive psychology and cybernetics included critical early developments in the field of man-machine interaction. However, his original work is often overshadowed by his accomplishments as a teacher, administrator and project leader and this ably written and well-researched biography isn't likely to propel him into the limelight. Waldrop (Man-Made Minds) devotes about 20% of the book to Licklider himself; the rest covers his teachers, colleagues and students at MIT and the Pentagon including computing pioneers Douglas Engelbart, Wes Clark and Larry Roberts and Licklider's indirect influence on the development of personal computers and the Internet (via "the world's first large-scale experiment in personal computing" at MIT). To his credit, Waldrop avoids common stereotypes of computer nerds or saints, delivering a vivid account of Licklider and his contemporaries. But he was not able to interview Licklider (who died in 1990), nor does he include material from personal papers or memoirs. Instead, Waldrop bases most of the book on secondary accounts, including biographies and histories of technology. The result is an informative and engaging history of computers from the 1930s to the 1970s, with an emphasis on Licklider and his period of greatest influence, 1957 to 1968. (Aug. 27) Forecast: A six-city author tour will raise some interest, but there isn't much demand for another history of computing and the Internet, especially when Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon's Where Wizards Stay Up Late and Martin Campbell-Kelly's Computer cover the same material. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Licklider, known to many simply as "Lick," was a revolutionary thinker for his time. During the early 1960s, he viewed the computer as a tool of communication and focused his attention on networking them for accessing information and resource sharing. Waldrop, a former writer for Science magazine and author of Complexity, paints a comprehensive portrait of his subject, describing how his dream of a "human-computer symbiosis" would change the course of history and culture. Lick's work as the director of the Advance Research Projects Agency (ARPA) for the Department of Defense led him to envision "a user at a remote terminal, having access to a variety of resources at several interconnected computer centers." While heading ARPA, he developed time-sharing the interactive use of computers by several people at the same time and paved the way for the creation of the Internet. This fascinating account is recommended for an informed audience. Joe Accardi, William Rainey Harper Coll., Palatine, IL Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Meet J.C.R. Licklider, the man who put "personal" in "personal computers," in this lively, memorable, and wickedly detailed biography from Waldrop ("Creativity", not reviewed). In what amounts to a history of the computer, Waldrop introduces readers to the men and women involved in the process (from Norbert Wiener and John von Neumann to Gary Kildall) and the process itself (decimal to binary and mechanical to electronic and operator to programmer). Skating his way through so much of this history was Licklider, a psychologist with a bent for mechanical engineering and mathematics, who saw the computer as humane and intimate, as a democratizing tool, but most of all a dreamer who understood that the beauty of the machine lay not in "automating those huge data-processing engines called bureaucracies." Rather, its glory would be in human-computer symbiosis, wedding the computer's algorithmic talents with the human's intuitive ones. And this interaction found its fullest expression in Arpanet-that "intergalactic network" that became the network of networks, the Internet-funded by the Pentagon but then exploding beyond its military confinement. As Waldrop tells this history, allowing readers to follow its multiple paths with the ease and delight of falling dominoes, he gets the names straight for his audience: When we think of the mouse and Windows and word-processing, insert Douglas Engelbart and delete Bill Gates; for MS-DOS, insert Kildall and delete Gates; for the personal computer, insert Licklider and delete Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Along the way, readers will also get a good sniff of the politics involved in working for such institutions as MIT, the Pentagon, IBM, and Xerox,all of which Licklider touched down in during his long career. A rollicking account of a good, old-fashioned visionary who gathered together-under one roof or connected by cables-like-minded visionaries to make the whole expansive notion of personal computing and networking a reality.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780142001356
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 8/27/2002
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 512
  • Product dimensions: 5.54 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.13 (d)

Meet the Author

M. Mitchell Waldrop, formerly a science writer at Science magazine, is the author of Complexity and Man- Made Minds.
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Read an Excerpt

The Dream Machine, Chapter 1

MISSOURI BOYS

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.

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Interviews & Essays

Exclusive Author Essay
The first time I called Louise Licklider was almost seven years ago, in December 1994. Over the telephone her voice sounded frail, thin, and old: "Yes?" I introduced myself, explaining that I was up at MIT doing interviews for a book I was writing about computers, and that I might want to write a section about her late husband, J.C.R. Licklider. Would she mind if I came by to ask a few questions? Well, okay, she said, rather uncertainly. "But I'm not sure how much I can help you -- we never talked much about the technical side of his work."

That's fine, I assured her with an enthusiasm I didn't feel. And the next day, thinking that this interview would probably be a dead end, but that I had to go through with it as a matter of courtesy, I drove my rental car out to Louise's house in suburban Arlington, Massachusetts. To be honest, I was beginning to wonder if the book itself was a dead end. I had been working on it for two years already -- ever since October 1992, when the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation had invited me to write one of its new series of books about technologies of the 20th century. At the time, of course, the deal had seemed like an incredibly sweet one. Sloan was offering a very generous living allowance, along with a separate fund for travel and incidental expenses, and a great deal of freedom in deciding what to write. The series managers had assured me that as long as the final product was somewhere in the ballpark of my assigned topic -- "software" -- they would be happy. So I had jumped at the chance. After all, my previous book, Complexity, was just reaching the bookstores. I had been looking for a new project. And I figured that "software" would be easy enough to write about.

Wrong. As I started digging into the subject, I quickly came to realize that this freedom was a decidedly mixed blessing. Given the avalanche of books and articles that had come out since the beginning of the PC revolution, what could I possibly say about "software" that hadn't been said a million times before? Should I write a biography of, say, Bill Gates? It had been done. And besides, there was enough entrepreneur worship in the computer press already. Should I write The Soul of a New Shrink-Wrapped Package? It had been done. And besides, I was sure that there was more to this subject than The Inside Story of The Latest Hot Product. I wanted to write about something -- well, deeper. How computers have affected society, say, or the way we think about the world, or even the way we think about ourselves.

The problem was that that was an awfully nebulous subject for a book, not to mention being terminally earnest. To make the book come alive I needed a story: a good yarn with vivid characters, and the kind of narrative drive that would keep readers turning the pages. I most especially needed a central character: someone who would serve the role of detective in a good mystery novel and lead the readers to discover the field as he or she discovered it. In Complexity I'd given that role to economist Brian Arthur, following him as he encountered the Santa Fe Institute and its efforts to understand complex adaptive systems. It worked because the readers ended up not caring that the institute's research was sometimes arcane and detailed. What mattered was that the human impulses driving that research -- the deep, visceral questions that Arthur and his colleagues couldn't stop themselves from asking -- were questions that all of us had asked, and that all of us could share. Why is there order and structure and life in the universe, for example, instead of just a uniform soup of lifeless particles? And yet, when I had tried to find a similarly compelling set of issues for this new book, and a person whom the readers could follow in the same way, I had ended up in one blind alley after another. I had talked to Young Turks in the research labs, Old Turks in the funding agencies, and everyone else I could think of. Nothing they suggested seemed quite right.

J.C.R. Licklider was a case in point. By the fall of 1994 I had talked to quite a few people who had known and worked with him. The undercurrent of affection was palpable; "Lick," as he was known, had not only been an admired and respected colleague but a beloved teacher, mentor, and friend. Back in the 1950s, Lick had been among the first to grasp the elemental notion that a computer could interact with users in real time and give an instant response -- that a computer could actually help its users think, in other words, as opposed to just crunching numbers for them. Then, in the early 1960s, Lick had organized an office to fund computer research within ARPA, the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency -- and had proceeded to push this idea of interactive computers as hard as he could. The research he funded paved the way for the emergence of personal computers a decade and a half later, in the mid-1970s. And along the way he had come up with the idea of linking all of the ARPA-funded computer science departments with a nationwide network -- which was later implemented as the Internet.

In short, Licklider was very much the kind of character I'd been looking for -- except that he had died in 1990. I would never have a chance to meet him, and I couldn't see any way to get the kind of detail and personal anecdotes I'd need to make him come alive for the reader. So here I was, getting more and more desperate for a way to write this book, headed for what I was sure would be a useless courtesy call on Lick's widow.

Wrong again. In person, Louise Licklider proved to be a tall, striking women in her 70s, and anything but frail. She made sure that there was a hot cup of tea by my elbow, with a wafer or two sitting on the saucer. She apologized once again that she wouldn't be able to help me with any technical details. And then, while I was still unpacking my laptop to take notes, as if she had unconsciously been waiting for this moment, she began telling stories -- how she and Lick had met during World War II and married; how they had talked every evening over cocktails, telling each other about their respective days; how he had felt about his work, the people he knew, and the dreams he had dreamed...

Technical details be damned. Louise Licklider and her husband had talked about everything important.

Four hours later, my tea was stone cold and her stories were still coming. I finally had to call a halt for the day because my fingers were getting too tired to type. But I knew I would be back. And I knew that I had finally found the story I wanted to tell in this book. (M. Mitchell Waldrop)

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 16, 2001

    An Outstanding History of Computer Science

    This is the best history of computer science that I've read. Unlike other 'histories' that merely review the commercial exploitation of computers, this book traces the evolution of ideas that turned the computer from a mere computing engine into today's multi-faceted interactive device. The often colorful characters who were responsible for various parts of the evolution stand out clearly and the ideas themselves are lucidly presented so that they can be followed by any attentive reader. The history spans my thirty years in the field and agrees well with my experience and observations during that period. This book is a must for anyone wanting to understand where the computer revolution came from.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 8, 2001

    Turning a Vision of Expanded Human Potential into Reality!

    The Dream Machine deserves many more than five stars. Mr. Waldrop provides a valuable synthesis of several important perspectives: (1) The development of personal, interconnected computing from its fundamental roots in academic and corporate scientific thinking, conceptualization, and experimentation; (2) How the vision of one man, Professor J. C. R. Licklider, played an important role in nurturing the development of this form of computing; (3) How creating a computing community that frequently shared ideas in-person and on-line accelerated the development of the technology and the society it served; and (4) How the contributions of the major and minors players fit together to bring us where we are today. Whenever I read a book about the history or current state of computing in the future, The Dream Machine will be valuable for helping me put the observations into context. This is true despite the fact that I have been doing consulting in this industry for almost 30 years, and had early access to many of its important innovations. In fact, if you only read one book about computers in the next two years, The Dream Machine should be that book. As valuable as I found that framing of the development, I was even more impressed with seeing how to foster fundamental human development through this example. Professor Licklider was trained initially in psychology. From that unusual perspective on computers, he quickly perceived what humans can do better than computers (make judgments, fine distinctions, and decide what order to do things in) and what computers can do better than humans (make difficult calculations, remember lots of things at the same time, and rearrange mountains of information into new forms of order). He also foresaw that the full exploitation of these combinations would have to come from playing with a responsive computer that did your bidding during real time. Although he knew that the costs of such would be prohibitive for many years, he helped encourage first time sharing and later software protocols that would bring the experience to as many people as soon as possible. Although he was not alone in his perception of all this, he was unique in his dedication and influence in bringing it all together through a long career as an academic and business researcher, visionary leader, professor, mentor, and twice head of ARPA computing activities in the Pentagon. His life should be an object lesson to all about how much difference one can make through bringing the right people and resources together to work on the right questions. If you are like me, you will find reading about Professor Licklider to be one of the most moving experiences you will ever have from reading a combination of history and biography. Some will complain because the book relies primarily on secondary sources. I found that foundation in books and stories I know well to be its strength. There is an enormous amount written about the history of computers and key people. How it all fits together is what I needed, not a new theory of what happened. Having been in the middle of or next to much of what is described here, I also came away with many new perspectives on where computing should go from here. In essence, this book succeeded in transferring Professor Licklider¿s vision and perspectives to me. Having seen how profound his vision has been, I can only hope that this transfer will take place for many people and coming generations through this outstanding book. I should note that for those who are not technically oriented this book is easy to read and understand, even though it is about a technical subject. I was also impressed that the personalities of the various pioneers in computer research came through loud and clear. Many of these people are known to me primarily through their accomplishments. I was glad to find out about them as people. After you finish this wonderful book

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