Skip the navigation

Happy Birthday, Sputnik! (Thanks for the Internet)

Fifty years ago, a small Soviet satellite was launched, stunning the U.S. and sparking a massive technology research effort. Could we be in for another "October surprise"?

By Gary Anthes
September 24, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Quick, what's the most influential piece of hardware from the early days of computing? The IBM 360 mainframe? The DEC PDP-1 minicomputer? Maybe earlier computers such as Binac, ENIAC or Univac? Or, going way back to the 1800s, is it the Babbage Difference Engine?

More likely, it was a 183-pound aluminum sphere called Sputnik, Russian for "traveling companion." Fifty years ago, on Oct. 4, 1957, radio-transmitted beeps from the first man-made object to orbit the Earth stunned and frightened the U.S., and the country's reaction to the "October surprise" changed computing forever.

Although Sputnik fell from orbit just three months after launch, it marked the beginning of the Space Age, and in the U.S., it produced angst bordering on hysteria. Soon, there was talk of a U.S.-Soviet "missile gap." Then on Dec. 6, 1957, a Vanguard rocket that was to have carried aloft the first U.S. satellite exploded on the launch pad. The press dubbed the Vanguard "Kaputnik," and the public demanded that something be done.

The most immediate "something" was the creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), a freewheeling Pentagon office created by President Eisenhower on Feb. 7, 1958. Its mission was to "prevent technological surprises," and in those first days, it was heavily weighted toward space programs.

Speaking of surprises, it might surprise some to learn that on the list of people who have most influenced the course of IT -- people with names like von Neumann, Watson, Hopper, Amdahl, Cerf, Gates and Berners-Lee -- appears the name J.C.R. Licklider, the first director of IT research at ARPA.

Armed with a big budget, carte blanche from his bosses and an unerring ability to attract bright people, Licklider catalyzed the invention of an astonishing array of IT, from time sharing to computer graphics to microprocessors to the Internet.

  J.C. R. Licklider

J.C.R. Licklider

Indeed, although he left ARPA in 1964 and returned only briefly in 1974, it would be hard to name a major branch of IT today that Licklider did not significantly shape through ARPA funding -- all ultimately in reaction to the little Soviet satellite.

But now, the special culture that enabled Licklider and his successors to work their magic has largely disappeared from government, many say, setting up the U.S. once again for a technological drubbing. Could there be another Sputnik? "Oh, yes," says Leonard Kleinrock, the Internet pioneer who developed the principles behind packet-switching, the basis for the Internet, while Licklider was at ARPA. "But it's not going to be a surprise this time. We all see it coming."

The ARPA Way
Licklider had studied psychology as an undergraduate, and in 1962, he brought to ARPA a passionate belief that computers could be far more user-friendly than the unconnected, batch-processing behemoths of the day. Two years earlier, he had published an influential paper, "Man-Computer Symbiosis," in which he laid out his vision for computers that could interact with users in real time. It was a radical idea, one utterly rejected by most academic and industrial researchers at the time. (See sidebar, Advanced Computing Visions from 1960.)

Driven by the idea that computers might not only converse with their users, but also with one another, Licklider set out on behalf of ARPA to find the best available research talent. He found it at companies like the RAND Corp., but mostly he found it at universities, starting first at MIT and then adding to his list Carnegie Mellon University; Stanford University; University of California, Berkeley; the University of Utah; and others.

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."


Our Commenting Policies
Consumerization of IT: Be in the know
consumer tech

Our new weekly Consumerization of IT newsletter covers a wide range of trends including BYOD, smartphones, tablets, MDM, cloud, social and what it all means for IT. Subscribe now and stay up to date!