The Dream Machine is part biography of early computing pioneer J. C. R. Licklider, and part history of the computing revolution that started in the 1960's that eventually led to the internet, the personal computer, and interactive computing.

Here's a short list of things I took away from the book:

  • Lots of innovation in that era came from military R&D labs like ARPA. Is this still true today?
  • Throughout the book we see incredibly innovative research teams being built from scratch: first in Licklider's psychoacoustics lab, then at ARPA, and then at Xerox PARC. The general principle behind building these teams was to simply hire the best people and let them work on what they found interesting with little oversight.
  • The pioneers had diverse backgrounds, although they were mostly from top universities. Licklider himself came from a psychology background, as did founder of Xerox PARC Bob Taylor. Many others had mathematics or physics backgrounds.
  • It's still hard to digest how sceptical people were of innovations that seem obvious in hindsight. The idea of time-sharing (instead of using a computer one person at a time) was ridiculed by IBM. Personal computers were considered unnecessary. Developing high-level languages and debugging tools to save a programmer's time at the expense of the computer's was considered to be a waste of resources (after all, computers are the scarce and expensive resource, not humans, right?).