Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Commentary: Sotir: Happy Birthday, Sputnik! (October 4, 1957)

It's been 50 years since that little 183 pound ball of aluminum made Americans sit up and take notice. It was about the size of a basketball, but the impact it had on the future was staggering. Americans were stunned and unnerved by the event, and everyone demanded that the U.S. respond. On February 7, 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) which had, as its mission the charge of preventing technological surprises. So they launched, and we launched...and launched. It changed our lives, our furniture (remember the Sputnik-inspired lamps?) and our society. Of course, as society goes, so goes education. It became fashionable to do math and science became a major focus.

By 1960, ARPA was moving full steam ahead, funded with what seemed to be endless dollars all with the goal of putting America back on top. In 1962, ARPA established and funded the Information Processing Techniques Office. Although the title seemed less than inspired, the new director, JCR Licklider, was anything but commonplace. In 1960 he had published the much heralded 'Man-Computer Symbiosis' and showed the world his vision of the future. This article anticipated the development of many information technologies, including the Internet itself. While the Department of Defense had computers for quite some time, the new vision was to have those computers freely sharing their information. While the rockets still launched into space, the developments on this planet were staggering. ARPA funds were given to MIT to start Project MAC, and the inclusion of academic research combined with government agencies (and money) spurred on progress. The interesting factor was that Licklider had both the money and the talent to achieve amazing success. By the end of 1968, new technologies such as the mouse and hypertext links were forming the base of computer to computer communication. The first Arpanet host-to-host message was sent from UCLA to Stanford in 1969, which led to the first 'internetting' project linking various kinds of packet-switching networks.

It's hard to imagine a world without the Internet, or the World Wide Web. When I first got involved in technology, there was no Web, only a very rudimentary system called the Bulletin Board System, or BBS. Within a relatively short time, the BBS morphed into the WWW, and lives were forever changed. With visionaries such as Licklider and his talented teams from both government and academia, we have bounded into the future. All those 'Modern Math' classes that we had as children in response to the Sputnik-mania formed young minds and gave a base (of something other than 10) to the future. Children today do not know that there was a world without computers. I wonder what their children will know?