Customer Reviews: The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal
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on November 16, 2001
I was a ms reviewer of this complete, but very readable book based on JCR Licklider's vision of interactive and networked computing. It covers almost 50 years of computing.
Why most of us need a copy:
It presents an accurate and quite complete history of the research and ideas that include timesharing, personal computing, graphics, Internet, etc.
I use it to check my memory on various facts.
The book is well written = easy and pleasant reading.
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on January 11, 2002
Everyone has heard about the amazing ideas and systems from Xerox PARC, but few realize that this lab was was the culmination of JCR Licklider's vision of personal, interactive computing, not its birthplace. Licklider provided the vision and impetus to form the ARPA-funded core of computer science research, which lead to Douglas Englebart's windows and mice, Xerox PARC's innovations, and the Internet. The next time that you hear someone saying that government can't do anything well, give them a copy of this book.
This book is a fascinating, well-written exposition of Licklider's life and work, and even more interestingly, the birth of computer science in the United States. I've never before seen this story as a continuous whole, as opposed to a collection of independent breakthroughs. It is a fascinating narrative, and this is a great book.
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on January 2, 2002
For anyone interested in why computers and the net are the way they are today, this entertaining and well-written account is essential. Using Licklider as the fulcrum, it covers the origins of computer science, interactive computing, and the internetworked PC world we live with today in a very personal way. It provides an insight into how these ideas evolved and how the personalities behind them animated that evolution. It is admittedly a very MIT/ARPA centric history, but given that's where many of these ideas had their genesis, it does a good job of covering a large amount of the territory of modern computing history. The one question the book leaves unanswered is why the field has not evolved further in the last twenty years. After all, as Waldrop demonstrates, the seeds of what we take for granted today were demonstrably in place 20-25 years ago.
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on November 16, 2001
This is the best history of computer science that I know. Unlike many "histories" that merely review the commercial exploitation of computers, this book focuses on the evolution of ideas and the innovators who carried the field forward. It spans my thirty years as a computer science researcher and agrees well with my experience and observations during that time. For anyone interested in obtaining a coherent picture of where the computer revolution came from, this book is a must.
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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, I encourage you to think about where you have a unique vision for how to improve the world that no one else understands or is as committed to as you are. How can you advance that understanding to the benefit of all?
Take a long, hard look at how we can come closer to our potential as humans!
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on November 16, 2001
I read every page as quickly as my reading time permitted. It is excellent and covers the history of the Internet and associated matters, written around Licklider's thoughts and philsophy from start to today. But it is far more than a story about Licklider. It covers sketchs of the contributions of John von Neumann, Norbert Wiener, Vannevar Bush, Alan Turing, J. Presper Eckert, John Mauchly, Claude Shannon and a dozen others. Then it takes up Licklider's fruitful stay at Bolt Beranek & Newman, Inc., followed by his service for ARPA and how he spread time sharing across the country by government financing. His long story about Project MAC at MIT which grew from ARPA contracts is highly informative. ARPA's moneys helped bring to fame some of the best known names in computer technology today. An ARPA contract led to the building of the ARPANET by BBN (after Lick returned to MIT), which when the ARPANET adopted the TCP/IP protocol, signaled the birth of the Internet. I was intrigued by the history of computer developments at Xerox's PARC Laboratory and how a "blind" management can kill a group's great innovations. The book ends with Licklider becoming an elder brother to Lick's Kids at MIT, his 70th birthday party, and his last days. This book is a must if you are interested in the growth of networking and computer usage as told around the life of a great man.
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on September 2, 2001
Now I am biased, but this is the very best book I have yet read on the devlopment of the Information processing industry -- the PC, the internet, etc. I lived through this era and know, studied with, or am good friends of a large proportion of the people discused in the book (no, I'm not in it). It is strange, but when you are living through a revolution, it is invisible. That's why books like this that put everything in perspective are so valuable. Sure, we knew it was exciting, but we thought that was the way things always were. I seem to have followed just a few years behind all the events described here, so I benifited from the results, whether it was the TX-0 computer, the early PDP series, Lick himself, or the people and early Alto machines at Xerox Parc. I knew Lick when he was just a psychoacoustician so I am delighted to have him receive proper recognition for the seminal role he played, especially when he ws at ARPA and funded the early wor on time-shared computers. Well written and accurate, with new insights into just how the information processing revolution came about. What else could you ask for?
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on September 25, 2002
Many books and documentaries have been produced chronicling the emergence of the mouse, windows and the internet. Most focus on familiar personalities: Gates, Wozniak, Jobs, and that crowd. But, that's too simplistic; they're merely the contemporary pioneers of the modern computer age. All of these invetions were propelled by visionaries of an earlier age, and J.C.R. Lickleider was one them. If you're interested in the history of emergent technology, you'll be fascinated by this alternate tale of the computer revolution in which one man became the focal point of technological change. His name is not a familiar one to most, yet without his ability to get university (and later government) financing for what seemed like zany ideas at the time, we might not have seen the development of ARPAnet, the progenitor of the modern internet. Though Lickleider himself probably never had a complete vision of what was to come from his efforts, there can be little doubt that his role was pivotal.
Author Waldrop takes you through Lickleider's life in academia where he struggled to push his vision of "computing for everyone" in which computers really would be used by the common person, not just by the military or major corporations -- a vision which was understandably rejected by most of his peers when computers were still the size of living rooms and cost as much as the GDP of small nations. Readers who are familiar with James Burke's "Connections" series will see a similar pattern to this story in which one person was at the right place at the right time to gather disperate technological threads together. Lickleider was not responsible for tying the final knot of these threads together, but without his influence, it might have taken a lot longer.
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on December 26, 2014
I found the book very informative, just the kind of details I was looking for about computing's history, and the pioneers behind it. However it wasn't an easy read for me. Not because it was too technical, but because it seems it gave a ton of details about every person, every organisation, entity, project, government program involved. I almost wish I had created a chart that kept track of how everything connected, since people moved around different companies, one company formed into another, one agency into another, one project spawned another, etc.. Also lots of acronyms to remember.
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on September 20, 2006
If there such a thing as an "epic" story of computer science, then M. Mitchell Waldrop's The Dream Machine is it. Although it purports to be the story of J.C.R. Licklider, and the birth of personal computing, this book is much more than that. It takes us from the edges of the computer science revolution, through the development of the modern computing industry and the World Wide Web.

Waldrop spends more time exploring the shadowy edges of the rise of computer science in America, and the intellectuals whose raw thinking provided the structure around which computing would develop. Giants like Norbert Weiner and Claude Shannon, and more obscure players like John Atanasoff of Iowa State University are given more thoughtful attention here than in most popular history accounts that I've encountered. Not only are their concrete accomplishments covered with clarity and understandability, but the thinking that got them there is attended to as well.

Of course, among the cast of great individuals is Licklider, whose efforts are worthy of the title billing Waldrop gives him. J.C.R. Licklider was a computer scientist before there was computer science, in any practical sense. While Lick (as everyone called him) himself, and the voice of technical accuracy, would likely disagree with that assertion, I stand beside it. Licklider was first a scientist, and he applied those core principles to developing his ideas in computing; computer science.

However, Waldrop's book does not feel like it was about Licklider, per se - despite a very intimate coverage of the man. Instead, the book remains focused on the growth of the intellectual concepts, and the practical technology that rose from those ideas. The scope of characters and technical detail covered by the book is remarkable, and yet it remains a readable and compelling story. The science is clear and understandable to individuals with an interest in the subject, without requiring a deep background (although, those with deeper backgrounds will still find the book enjoyable, and original).
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