[ih] Historical Tracing from Concept to Reality over 5 decades?

Jack Haverty jack at 3kitty.org
Mon Jul 6 11:50:47 PDT 2020

For a while now, I've been curious about how ideas progress from
brainstorm to
reality, and the recent mention of Licklider's vision reminded me.  So a
question for the historians out there -- has anyone traced an
idea from concept decades ago to reality today?

There's a specific idea that I have in mind.  Back in the early 70s,
("Lick") was my thesis advisor and later boss of the group where I worked at
MIT.  Lick had a vision of "verbs" and "nouns", roughly meaning
subroutines and
data structures, that could be used to put together "sentences,
paragraphs, and
documents", meaning computer subroutine libraries and programs.  These
"documents" would interact with each other across the "intergalactic

Having been brainwashed by Lick, I'm admittedly biased, but that sure sounds
pretty close to what we have today, 50 years later.

Back in the 70s, part of Lick's vision was also that you could write
of subroutines to create a dictionary of "verbs" and standardized data
structures , or "nouns", and through some magic (APIs) plug them
together into
sentences, aka programs, to do useful work.    

Our group spent a lot of time, as part of an ARPA effort called "Automatic
Programming", to build such a system, called "CALICO" (which stood for
but I can't remember what). The "dictionary" of pieces was well-documented
(eeerr, uuhm, sorta kinda - we weren't big on documentation) and in a
database for use by subsequent programmers.

But the technology of the era dictated using PDP-10 assembly language,
terminals, and the now appallingly slow ARPANET.   None of this was
portable and has long since disappeared.

Fast forward to 2020.  I recently stumbled across a technology called
somehow associated with IBM, which provides a "palette" of components
which do
interesting things -- i.e., the "verbs" and "nouns" in Lick's
terminology.  The
programming environment is a blank screen, onto which you drag the
pieces you
need, and then "wire" them together to create functional programming.   You
create your program by literally drawing a picture.  The Internet
provides the
necessary communications substrate on which all these actors perform.  
can readily create new "verbs" and submit them to the library.

IMHO, Lick would have loved this.

I've been using NodeRed to create some simple home automation programs,
stuff like turning on lights when motion sensors trigger.   Or send me email
when something unusual is detected.  Or almost anything else you can
think of.
It really is very simple to use.  I can see the parallels between Lick's 70s
vision and today's actual implementations.   Instead of a PDP-10 and
today I just use a Raspberry Pi and Wifi.

So, my curiosity is how the world got from point A to point B.  There
were lots
of people who encountered Lick over the years, e.g., at MIT, ARPA,
etc.   There
were lots of students who passed through Lick's group on their way to
Did Lick's vision travel with some of them and influence the appearance of
NodeRed 50 years later?   Or was it some totally different evolution from
someone's else's similar vision?

Do Internet Historians perform these kinds of "genealogy" traces of the
evolution of technical ideas from concept to widespread use?   How did
like NodeRed come from vision to reality?

/Jack Haverty (MIT LCS 1969-1977)

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