The dream machine

In my last post, I talked about the history of the computer. Today, I go into more detail about The Dream Machine, a book that starts with the life of J. C. R. Licklider, a man who it can be argued first envisioned the Internet and computing as we know it today. Described as “tall, handsome, athletic, and outgoing, with sun-bleached hair and blue eyes”, by 1942 he earned his PhD in neuroscience. His thesis was on creating “the first maps of neural activity on the auditory cortex”. He went on to create ideas for an “Intergalatic Computer Network” and in 1960 published the famous paper “Man-Computer Symbiosis”. Do I have your interest yet?

See the B-17 airplane at 1 min 20 seconds in.

In 1940, with American air crews already flying war missions for Britain under a “Lend-Lease” program, the Army Air Corps was looking to solve a problem – the roar of B-17 engines was so loud that communicating inside the cockpit was difficult, and crews were returning back from missions so exhausted that they had trouble landing. The engine vibrations were suspected to factor into this fatigue. So, they initiated a research program into “practical acoustics”. A young Harvard physicist, Leo Beranek, was named the director, and quickly established the Psycho-Acoustics Laboratory to be headed by Stanley Smith Stevens. One of Stevens’ first hires was none other than J. C. R. Licklider, and by the summer of 1942 Licklider was employed at the lab full-time.

Memorial Hall was the location of the Psycho-Acoustics Laboratory in 1945

The Psycho-Acoustics Laboratory was located on Harvard campus in Memorial Hall, an old building that staff referred to as “the Dungeon”. This made sense when considering it was going to conduct classified war research and, naturally, be quite LOUD. While Licklider began his research there, he started making routine visits to a formerly little-known university just down the road, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) which was now a hotbed of government, military, and scientific research. In the midst of all this, he also quickly became enamored of a 23 year old secretary who looked like Ginger Rogers and happened to be married. Within 3 years, she was divorced and married to him. We’ve only started to scratch the surface of this fascinating story, and to paraphrase a popular show, “drama is coming”!

The first image is of a “steampunk” modified computer, created by Jake von Slatt.

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