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

Jack Haverty jack at 3kitty.org
Thu Jul 9 13:40:17 PDT 2020

Hi Steve et al,

Yes, I agree that there are "traceable tracks" over the last 50+ years
from concept to what we have today, for a lot of different concepts.  
What I was searching for was a pointer to some book(s) or author(s) that
have actually done the tracing, including multiple traces that
influenced each other, and shown how the world got from point A to point B.

I've only read a few "internet history" expositions, but all that I've
seen have seemed to me to be quite parochial, tracing either the history
of a person or maybe a group, or the history of a technology such as
TCP/IP (or ARPANET).     So, for example, they don't explore any
influences that might have occurred from other parallel efforts.  

One example is the development of the Internet in the early 80s, and
cross-coupling that might have occurred between the ARPA "Internet
Project" and the Xerox PARC creation of XNS technology.  I do have one
tiny piece of evidence that such interactions occurred -- one of the XNS
specifications references an RFC I wrote at MIT while in Lick's world;
somebody at Xerox read it, although I suspect much more such
"cross-coupling" occurred when Bob Metcalfe left Lick's group and joined
PARC.  Also I recall John Schoch participating (and even hosting at
PARC) one of the quarterly Internet meetings, and lively discussions of
naming vs. addressing vs. routing.

There were similarly many other concomitant "internet projects" in the
80s -- IBM/SNA, Novell, Banyan, OSI, DECNET, et al, which may, or may
not, have interacted with "The Internet", if only by the effect of
people moving around during their career.   But the "internet history"
discussions I've seen generally don't even mention such work.

So I was hoping that someone would point me to some historian's work
which has traced something (e.g., Lick's notion of programming) through
whatever paths it took through whatever companies and institutions over
time, showing how it evolved from concept to reality.   I guess there
isn't any but maybe some historian lurking here will take up the task.

Meanwhile, I'm collecting thoughts to write down what I personally
experienced, which will necessarily be parochial since I can't remember
what I never encountered.   But I had a different path than others, so
maybe it will provide another piece of the puzzle for someone to put
together later.   As you said, there's plenty of room for multiple


On 7/6/20 12:25 PM, Steve Crocker wrote:
> Jack,
> The original visions fo Lick, the AI senior people -- Simon, Newell,
> McCarthy, Minsky, Engelbart and others repeatedly animated ARPA
> sponsored computer science research over many years.  Some ideas
> attempted and reattempted.  Hardware was often (always?) a gating
> factor, but, of course, there was also a learning curve.  From mid
> 1971 to mid 194 I oversaw the first few years of the Speech
> Understanding Program.  The goal was understanding connected speech
> input in a constrained task environment.  1,000 word vocabulary,
> standard American male broadcast speech in a clean environment.  No
> requirement to operate in real time.  There are traceable tracks from
> that work to today's Alexa, Siri, et al.  Lick had a vision of a
> unified library.  I'm not sure today's Google is quite what he had in
> mind, but it's quite astonishing nonetheless.
> David Alan Grier and I are working on a history of the Arpanet.  We've
> been trying to describe the context, i.e. the state of the art and the
> motivation, and that's led us inevitably into the broader context of
> the goals for man machine interaction during that period.  We
> certainly won't be able to include all the threads from that period,
> so there is room for multiple histories to be written.
> Steve
> On Mon, Jul 6, 2020 at 2:51 PM Jack Haverty via Internet-history
> <internet-history at elists.isoc.org
> <mailto:internet-history at elists.isoc.org>> wrote:
>     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
>     Internet-related
>     idea from concept decades ago to reality today?
>     There's a specific idea that I have in mind.  Back in the early 70s,
>     Licklider
>     ("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
>     computer
>     network".
>     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
>     libraries
>     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
>     something
>     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
>     searchable
>     database for use by subsequent programmers.
>     But the technology of the era dictated using PDP-10 assembly language,
>     text-only
>     terminals, and the now appallingly slow ARPANET.   None of this was
>     especially
>     portable and has long since disappeared.
>     Fast forward to 2020.  I recently stumbled across a technology called
>     NodeRed,
>     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.  
>     People
>     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,
>     e.g.,
>     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
>     ARPANET,
>     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
>     careers. 
>     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
>     something
>     like NodeRed come from vision to reality?
>     /Jack Haverty (MIT LCS 1969-1977)
>     -- 
>     Internet-history mailing list
>     Internet-history at elists.isoc.org
>     <mailto:Internet-history at elists.isoc.org>
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