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The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal

4.55  ·  Rating details ·  834 ratings  ·  121 reviews
A study of the evolution of the modern computer profiles the work of MIT psychologist J. C. R. Licklider, whose visionary dream of a human-computer symbiosis transformed the course of modern science and led to the development of the personal computer. Reprint.
Paperback, 512 pages
Published August 27th 2002 by Penguin Books (first published 2001)
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Kevin O'Brien
Aug 18, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Having just read Katie Hafner's Where Wizard's Stay Up Late I was ready to tackle this book, which is both deeper and more ambitious. Where Hafner's book was purely about the origin of the Internet, Waldrop is taking on the whole idea of personal computing. Licklider thus provides the focus for this book, for while he played a crucial role in promoting networking, his true aim was always what he termed a symbiotic partnership between humans and computers, and for him networking was just a necess ...more
Apr 07, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is the most deeply insightful book I've read on the history & vision of computing.

It's special since it covers an amazingly broad scope – all the way from the mechanical machines employed in WW2 (cybernetics) to modern-day personal computing & the internet. It's even more special since it also covers the people & the culture that made all this happen.

It ties *so* many threads together:
– The origins of Claude Shannon's information theory & Von Neumann's architecture that laid the groundwork
Michal Takáč
Sep 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
Incredible book! I'm so glad that it found the way to me somehow (don't remember how it happened, maybe from some tweet from Bret Victor?). It goes through the history of computing, from when the Information theory was invented, ARPA, IPTO, Xerox PARC, invention of object-oriented programming, Smalltalk, multitasking, graphical interface, until current notion of personal computer.

I HIGHLY encourage everybody who loves computers to read this book cover to cover. I'll definitely re-read it in comi
May 30, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Jayesh by: Alan Kay
Shelves: non-fiction
I have read quite a few books covering different parts of the history of computing but none of them were as expansive as this one. Not sure if keeping Licklider's name in the title was necessary since the book covers so many people important to the "revolution" that he mostly ends up being a framing device for an expansive tale. ...more
May 20, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This book is as good as all the other reviews say it is. Alan Kay recommends it as the best history of that era.

While it might take some time to read, Waldrop's prose travels smoothly into your mind, allowing you to focus on the ideas, people, and relationships. Waldrop writes fairly: where there's controversy, he'll mention multiple perspectives, and his narrative voice makes a clear distinction between the consensus and his speculation, an important habit for a chronicler. And the people: ther
Cedric Chin
Apr 06, 2021 rated it it was amazing
This was a history of software, but also a history of the Internet, and a history of the computer.

It is very good and you should read it.

I think the most valuable thing I got from this book is a better, more nuanced understanding of what a technological revolution looks like from the inside.

Before the internet could be a thing, people needed to get used to the idea that computers could be personal — that you could 'own' more than just computer time. Before computers could be personal, they neede
Thomas Dietert
Jul 17, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
One of the best non-fiction books I've ever read. Sure, I'm probably biased because my life revolves around computer programming, but nonetheless I'd avidly assert that anyone who takes pleasure in using a personal computer or the internet in any way would greatly enjoy this story about the inception, story, and humans behind the ideas at their foundation. ...more
George Gao
May 17, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This is a brilliant biography of J.C.R. Licklider, as well as personal computing and networking which has shaped the lives of our generation in every aspect.

This book hit me in the process of writing my honours thesis, I am working with technologies that the characters so clairvoyantly dreamed of and then made real. Every time a new technology is introduced as an idea floating around somewhere in Cambridge MA or the nascent Bay Area it makes you gasp at the ingenuity, and the hard work, context
Dec 05, 2020 rated it liked it
A detailed history of the personal computer, from the first analog ballistic computers to the Apple Macintosh. There's a lot of interesting history here, and the book explores important ideas through the eyes of the people who invented computing. But at times it all feels a little too detailed. Still, I'm glad I read this and I'd recommend it to anyone interested in knowing more about the pioneers of computing. ...more
Ye Lin Aung
Jul 29, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites, read-2018
This is an incredible journey of computing of from WW2 towards the invention of WWW/The Internet. There are a lot of lessons along the way, the names we might have heard of and their relationships with the computers. This quote sticks with me most

hire the most brilliant experimenters in the country, give them the best equipment money could buy, inspire them to the highest possible standards of intellectual clarity and experimental precision—and work them fourteen hours per day.

And I guess this i
Brian Cloutier
Apr 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Inspirational. It was a pleasure to follow Lick's life as computers went from nonextant to bicycles for the mind. I think that I believe in more determinism than the author does, personal computers likely would have happened even without ARPA's valiant efforts. It was still a pleasure to read about this man who had A Vision For the Future and did his best to make it happen, inspiring generations of computer scientists along the way. I have too many thoughts about this book right now to write a c ...more
Palash Karia
A very well-written, surprisingly comprehensive, & exciting to read history of 'personal' computing & the internet, this book is a fitting tribute to JCR Licklider, 'the father of it all'. It's a must read if you learn about computing history. ...more
Feb 26, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
One of my new all-time favorite books. Learning about the history of computing through the people, the ideas that captured them, and the organizations that they built is ridiculously awe-inspiring as a computer scientist.
Sahil Handa
Absolutely incredible.

I can't help but wish there was a little more than a phrase on Ted Nelson/Project Xanadu, though...
Jul 27, 2020 rated it really liked it
Ugh, this was such a great book. I’m a sucker for computing history. It ties together Chomsky, Claude Shannon, Von Neumann, Douglas Engelbart, and a host of other prominent characters in an easy to read, engaging narrative. I loved how it humanized everyone and didn’t read like a dry textbook.

The topics covered span wide, giving a holistic view of how modern computing came to be. It’s like getting a quick romanticized snapshot of my Computer Engineering degree (I bet CS / Cogs grads would love
Andrew Louis
Less a biography of a single person and more the story of an idealistic thread in computing history.
May 24, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Incredible book.

Basically tells the whole history of computing starting from pre-WWII years, through John von Neumann and Alan Turning years, invention of LISP, Arpanet, Xerox PARC, TCP/IP, Unix and interactive computing and finally internet.

It just connects all the great people together: Norbert Wiener, von Neumann, Noam Chomsky, JFK, Alan Kay, Vint Cerf, John McCarthy, Marvin Minsky, Steve Jobs, Al Gore. And all connected via work of J. C. R. Licklider.

Mar 12, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is the story of the Computer Revolution, starting in the late 30s-40s and reaching the early 90s. The author uses the figure of J. C. R. Licklider, one of the central figures in unlocking the potential of the personal computer, as the main thread and dives into the characters that brought the vision of a dream machine into reality.
This book does an amazing job at bringing life to these famous characters in the history of Computing, people like Von Neumann, Norbert Wiener, McCulloch and Pit
Joe Zeng
Jun 21, 2020 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Pretty incredible book on the history of computing and a look at the life of a pioneer not commonly taught in schools. Gives great insight on the first principle thinking that early computer scientists exercised.
Shuo Yang
Mar 03, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This is probably the best book about early days of computer and internet. Learned a lot and got a lot of inspirations. I was so amazed that find myself end up underlining the whole page.
Ron Mitchell
Feb 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Just brilliant

Best history of the computer revolution I've ever seen. Seems to be only available on Kindle. Why isn't this masterpiece back in print?
Josh Friedlander

This book began as a somewhat vague project, in response to a grant for a book about software. As Waldrop explains in the acknowledgements, he wanted to write about the history of the personal computer, and Licklider's name kept coming up, so he decided to write his biography. But the book is mostly a history of the idea of computing from the 1950s to the new millenium, with Licklider's bio inserted periodically as the connecting tissue. A creative, brilliant polymath, "Lick" was frustrated by t
Hariharan Gopalakrishnan
Review on re-read:
At once dense and lucid, this is a spectacular story of how computers got to where they are today. This is an expansive book, and it touches upon more than a dozen researchers and engineers (spending considerable amount of time with each) whose work has brought us the modern computer system and internet.
It starts from the 1930s (Norbert Weiner, Von Neumann, Turing, Shannon , UNIVAC, ENIAC, the people at the MIT Rad Lab etc.) and goes up to the early 1990s (Tim Bernes Lee, NSFNe
Michael Siliski
Feb 01, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A vivid retelling of the birth of modern computing

The Dream Machine traces the birth of modern computing, primarily focusing on the 1940s through the 1970s, but reaching back all the way to the 1920s and looking forward into the 1990s. (It was written in the late 90s.) It’s central scaffolding is the story of J. C. R. Licklider, a visionary psychologist and computer scientist who played a key role in evangelizing, funding, and realizing interactive computing. In particular, through his work at A
Mar 29, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This is a splendid, if long, book about the development of the personal computer, starting just after World War Two. Many brilliant individuals got involved over the years, sometimes working independently, often eventually joining others in a team -- many teams over time, at many places around the world, including a number of universities and other labs.

JCR Licklider had the knack of bringing together brilliant, talented people to accomplish great things, even what sometimes seemed impossible.
Michael Dubakov
Aug 07, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
🐝 The Dream Machine by M. Mitchell Waldrop #book
J.C.R. Licklider is quite unknown outside US. It's a pity, since he influenced computers evolution enormously. As a head of ARPA he put money into many obscure research groups, thus literarily emulating VC in 60s!

He did not like to write papers and books, but loved to invent things, talk to people and share ideas. And he had many.

This is an overview of the whole computer industry from 50s to 90s. And this is good and bad at the same time.

Alex Rawitz
May 28, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A truly incredible book in its detail, narrative, and scope. It gets a little slow at times, but the the way Waldrop follows the threads of the development of computers from their primordial moments to the not so distant past is a masterclass. Waldrop spares no angle and detail, telling us about the lives and emotions and dreams of the people who shaped the technology that permeates our world.

One of the seminal ideas that sticks with me: computers were for a long time considered to be very larg
Jose CruzyCelis
Apr 15, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Had been postponing this book for a while and finally gave it the time it truly deserves. The dream machine is a foundational book, I'd recommend it to anyone that is interested in science, tech or society in general. It tells the story of the personal computer, the internet and most of the current information technologies that society interacts with on a daily basis.

It does this masterfully telling the story along the life of a central, fascinating and not so well-known figure outside the indus
Elijah Oyekunle
The computing revolution, as we know it, usually dates from Paul Allen (RIP, Paul) seeing the Altair in a magazine, and Boom! PC Dead! Mainframes.
However, this book tells the story of the idea itself, that is computing. Interactivity was the spirit of the PC revolution and a few people were the enablers of an environment where creativity could foster, and one of them was J.C.R. Licklider.
Reading about the Internet, one always just heard that first there was something called Arpanet and then Tim
Michiel Appelman
Jan 05, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, technology
As a long time enthusiast and professional in the computer/networking world, it is a shame that I have only read this extensive account now. I did know about Doug Engelbart's demo in 1968 and how it already included most of the concepts we currently take for granted in using computers, but reading about Lick and his vision, and how it developed was truly exciting. His insights and apparent dedication in fulfilling this dream are admirable.

Because the story features so many people and names, pers
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“Through feedback, said Wiener, Bigelow, and Rosenblueth, a mechanism could embody purpose.

Even today, more than half a century later, that assertion still has the power to fascinate and disturb. It arguably marks the beginning of what are now known as artificial intelligence and cognitive science: the study of mind and brain as information processors. But more than that, it does indeed claim to bridge that ancient gulf between body and mind—between ordinary, passive matter and active, purposeful spirit. Consider that humble thermostat again. It definitely embodies a purpose: to keep the room at a constant temperature. And yet there is nothing you can point to and say, "Here it is—this is the psychological state called purpose." Rather, purpose in the thermostat is a property of the system as a whole and how its components are organized. It is a mental state that is invisible and ineffable, yet a natural phenomenon that is perfectly comprehensible.

And so it is in the mind, Wiener and his colleagues contended. Obviously, the myriad feedback mechanisms that govern the brain are far more complex than any thermostat. But at base, their operation is the same. If we can understand how ordinary matter in the form of a machine can embody purpose, then we can also begin to understand how those three pounds of ordinary matter inside our skulls can embody purpose—and spirit, and will, and volition. Conversely, if we can see living organisms as (enormously complex) feedback systems actively interacting with their environments, then we can begin to comprehend how the ineffable qualities of mind are not separate from the body but rather inextricably bound up in it.”
“Nonetheless, his vision of high technology’s enhancing and empowering the individual, as opposed to serving some large institution, was quite radical for 1939—so radical, in fact, that it wouldn’t really take hold of the public’s imagination for another forty years, at which point it would reemerge as the central message of the personal-computer revolution.” 0 likes
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