Happy birthday, Sputnik! (Thanks for the Internet)

Fifty years ago, on Oct. 4, 1957, radio-transmitted beeps from the first man-made object to orbit the Earth stunned and frightened the US, and the country's reaction to the "October surprise" changed computing forever.

Advanced computing visions from 1960

Nearly a half-century ago, a former MIT professor of psychology and electrical engineering wrote a paper -- largely forgotten today -- that anticipated by decades the emergence of computer time sharing, networks and some features that even today are at the leading edge of IT.

Licklider wrote "Man-Computer Symbiosis" in 1960, at a time when computing was done by a handful of big, stand-alone batch-processing machines. In addition to predicting "networks of thinking centers," he said man-computer symbiosis would require the following advances:

  • Indexed databases. "Implicit in the idea of man-computer symbiosis are the requirements that information be retrievable both by name and by pattern and that it be accessible through procedures much faster than serial search."

  • Machine learning in the form of "self-organizing" programs. "Computers will in due course be able to devise and simplify their own procedures for achieving stated goals."

  • Dynamic linking of programs and applications, or "real-time concatenation of preprogrammed segments and closed subroutines which the human operator can designate and call into action simply by name."

  • More and better methods for input and output. "In generally available computers, there is almost no provision for any more effective, immediate man-machine communication than can be achieved with an electric typewriter."

  • Tablet input and handwriting recognition. "It will be necessary for the man and the computer to draw graphs and pictures and to write notes and equations to each other on the same display surface."

  • Speech recognition. "The interest stems from realization that one can hardly take a ... corporation president away from his work to teach him to type."

Licklider sought out researchers like himself: bright, farsighted and impatient with bureaucratic impediments. He established a culture and modus operandi -- and passed it on to his successors Ivan Sutherland, Robert Taylor, Larry Roberts and Bob Kahn -- that would make the agency, over the next 30 years, the most powerful engine for IT innovation in the world.

Recalls Kleinrock, "Licklider set the tone for ARPA's funding model: long-term, high-risk, high-payoff and visionary, and with program managers, that let principal investigators run with research as they saw fit." (Although Kleinrock never worked at ARPA, he played a key role in the development of the ARPAnet, and in 1969, he directed the installation of the first ARPAnet node at UCLA.)

From the early 1960s, ARPA built close relationships with universities and a few companies, each doing what it did best while drawing on the accomplishments of the others. What began as a simple attempt to link the computers used by a handful of US Department of Defense researchers ultimately led to the global Internet of today.

Along the way, ARPA spawned an incredible array of supporting technologies, including time sharing, workstations, computer graphics, graphical user interfaces, very large-scale integration (VLSI) design, RISC processors and parallel computing (see DARPA's Role in IT Innovations). There were four ingredients in this recipe for success: generous funding, brilliant people, freedom from red tape and the occasional ascent to the bully pulpit by ARPA managers.

These individual technologies had a way of cross-fertilizing and combining over time in ways probably not foreseen even by ARPA managers. What would become the Sun Microsystems workstation, for example, owes its origins rather directly to a half-dozen major technologies developed at multiple universities and companies, all funded by ARPA.

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Gary Anthes

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