Working on the AN/FSQ-7 computer in a Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (or SAGE) air defence system facility. Photo by Andreas Feininger/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty
How the hair-trigger nuclear age and fears of Armageddon inspired visionary cold warriors to invent the internet
‘We have some big trouble,’ president John F Kennedy told his brother, the attorney general Bobby Kennedy, early in the morning of 16 October 1962.
A few hours later, the younger Kennedy was staring at pictures of Cuba taken by the U-2 surveillance aircraft. ‘Those sons of bitches, Russians,’ he said, sitting in the White House with a group of officials dedicated to overthrowing Fidel Castro.
The pictures showed the telltale signs of Soviet missile launchers. The CIA had used a massive computer – which took the better part of a room to house – to calculate the precise measurements and capabilities of the missiles installed. Their dismal conclusion was that these missiles had a range of more than 1,000 miles, making them capable of reaching Washington, DC in just 13 minutes. This revelation sparked off a crisis that lasted almost two weeks. As the standoff over Cuba intensified, US military forces reached DEFCON 2, just one alert level before the start of nuclear war.
As military and civilian commanders clamoured for information on a minute-by-minute basis, computers such as the IBM 473L of the United States Air Force were being used for the first time in the midst of a conflict to process real-time information on how, for example, to allocate military forces. Yet even with the growing availability of computers, sharing that information among military commanders involved a time lag. The idea of having the information travel between connected computers did not yet exist.
After 13 days of scrambling forces to carry out a potential attack, the Soviet Union agreed to remove its missiles from Cuba. Nuclear war was averted, but the standoff also demonstrated the limits of command and control. With the complexities of modern warfare, how can you effectively control your nuclear forces if you cannot share information in real time? Unbeknown to most of the military’s senior leadership, a relatively low-level scientist had just arrived at the Pentagon to address that very problem. The solution he would come up with became the agency’s most famous project, revolutionising not just military command and control but modern computing too.
Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider – JCR, or simply Lick to his friends – spent much of his time at the Pentagon hiding. In a building where most bureaucrats measured their importance by proximity to the secretary of defence, Licklider was relieved when the Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA, assigned him an office in the D‑Ring, one of the Pentagon’s windowless inner circles. There, he could work in peace.
One time, Licklider invited ARPA employees to a meeting at the Marriott hotel between the Pentagon and the Potomac River, to demonstrate how someone in the future would use a computer to access information. As the chief proselytiser for interactive computing, Licklider first wanted people to understand the concept. He was trying to demonstrate how, in the future, everyone would have a computer, people would interact directly with those computers, and the computers would all be connected together. He was demonstrating personal computing and the modern internet, years before they existed.
There is little debate that Licklider’s reserved but forceful presence in ARPA laid the foundations for computer networking – work that would eventually lead to the modern internet. The real question is: why? The truth is complicated, and it is impossible to divorce the internet’s origins from the Pentagon’s interest in the problems of war, both limited and nuclear. ARPA was established in 1958 to help the United States catch up with the Soviets in the space race, but by the early 1960s, it had branched off into new research areas, including command and control. The internet would likely not have been born without the military’s need to wage war, or at least it would not have been born at ARPA. Tracing the origins of computer networking at ARPA requires understanding what motivated the Pentagon to hire someone like Licklider in the first place.
It started with brainwashing…