On the 3rd of July 1990, an unusually long obituary appeared in The New York Times, with the title “Joseph C.R. Licklider Dies at 75; Foresaw New Uses for Computers”. A computer scientist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Lick – as he was commonly referred to by his colleagues – had taken up the position of director at the Information Processing Techniques Office of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), established under the US Department of Defense in 1958. Whilst working there, Lick had had the outrageous idea that perhaps computers, which had up until that point been used primarily to process mathematical computations, could be used as key components in a new communications system.
During the Cold War, as Russia pulled ahead in the Space Race with the successful launch of Sputnik 1, the US became increasingly concerned that the USSR’s scientific prowess would provide it with a dangerous advantage as the conflict between the two nations escalated and the threat of nuclear war mounted. In response to this threat, ARPA was established primarily to develop new technologies for military use. It became, however, a hub of academic and military collaboration that led to many important developments in computer science, for both military and commercial use. These significant breakthroughs included the development of computer graphics, parallel processing, computer flight simulation and, perhaps most importantly, the internet.
A great deal of the Agency’s work stemmed from the concern that in the event of nuclear war, Russia might be able to destroy America’s long-distance communication network, which relied on telephone lines and wires that could be physically damaged. The military therefore sought to develop a communications system that had no physical headquarters or core that could be attacked. In 1962, Lick suggested connecting computers together in a network, in such a way that there would be no need for a dedicated telephone connection between each computer and so that any terminal could communicate with another terminal, using a common computer-language protocol. Not only would this provide an alternate communications system in the event of an attack by the USSR, but it would also facilitate the sharing of information in academic circles, dramatically increasing the advancement of the US’s scientific aspirations. Such a system would enable scientists in different physical locations to work collaboratively, building on each other’s work and reducing the duplication of effort through access to each other’s data.
Based on Lick’s idea, an early version of the internet – known as the ARPANET – was developed in 1969. This evolved rapidly over the following twenty years, eventually becoming what we know as the internet. Lick, however, never saw the next important development in communications technology that had been facilitated by his creation as he died the same year ARPANET was replaced by the internet.