In Brief

Considering that the Internet is the world's hottest new medium, psychologists should be puffing out their chests. Why? Because the Nostradamus of the technology boom, J.C.R. Licklider, PhD, was a psychologist.

Licklider, who died in 1990 at age 85, was according to his colleagues "one of the prime movers" of what is now the Internet. As early as 1960, Licklider had visions of e-commerce, online banking and digital libraries, and he helped mentor a generation of computer scientists.

Licklider, known widely as "Lick," developed a passion for computers early in his career. In 1950, while at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he headed the human factors team of Project SAGE, a research program that was creating a computer-based system that could provide a defense system against Soviet bombers. He left MIT in 1957 and took his computer expertise to Bolt Beranek and Newman, Inc. (BBN), a research and development company that would become well known for its involvement in the rise of network technology.

"BBN got into computers because of Licklider--he dragged the company in that direction," says experimental psychologist Raymond Nickerson, PhD, who worked at BBN for 25 years.

Experimental psychologist John Swets, PhD, a colleague of Licklider's at both MIT and BBN, recalls Licklider's forethought about the role of computers in people's lives.

"Very early on, he was developing materials on computer-assisted instruction," says Swets. "He had a vision that people could have easy access to the machines."

In 1960, Licklider wrote the paper "Man-Computer Symbiosis" published in the Institute of Radio Engineers journal Transactions on Human Factors in Electronics. The paper described a system that bears an astonishing similarity to today's Internet, according to a recent article on Licklider in the MIT journal Technology Review.

"He described an online 'thinking center' that would incorporate the functions of present-day libraries," states the article, which appeared in the January issue of the journal. "He foresaw 'a network of such centers, connected to one another by wide band communications lines and to individual users by leased-wire services.' Any similarity to today's Internet is not a coincidence."

In 1962, Licklider was asked to be a project manager at the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) at the Department of Defense. For the next two years, he administrated more than $20 million for computer science, funding research groups at MIT, Stanford and Berkeley, and helping to create several computer science departments. One of the visionaries he funded went on to develop the mouse and hypertext.

Licklider was also interested in learning from the experts he motivated. "Lick would travel around the country trying to find smart people who could teach him more about computers," recalls Swets. "He would listen and learn from them."

The Internet didn't happen during Licklider's watch at ARPA, which ended in 1964, but his ideas were passed down to his hand-picked successors. And what began at ARPA in 1969 as a system called the ARPAnet, eventually evolved into the Internet.

And though Licklider's work is probably better known among computer scientists than among psychologists, Swets says, he applied his knowledge of psychology and neuroscience to every project he touched.

Nickerson agrees, "Licklider always approached computers from the point of view of how they could aid human thinking. He was truly a visionary, a genuine person, and in every way an honor to his profession."


Further Reading

For more information about Licklider, visit the January issue of MIT's Technology Review at To read Licklider's seminal paper, go to