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The ABC's of BBN: From Acoustics to Behavioral Sciences to Computers
April-June 2005 (vol. 27 no. 2)
pp. 15-29
The discipline of psychology, and specifically the concept of man–machine integration, served to organize computer research and development at BBN, beginning in the 1950s.

1. P.N. Edwards, The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America, MIT Press, 1996; K. Hafner and M. Lyon, Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet, Simon and Schuster, 1966; T.P. Hughes, Rescuing Prometheus, Vantage, 1998; M.M. Waldrop, The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal, Viking, 2001.
2. C.E. Shannon, "The Mathematical Theory of Communication," Bell System Tech. J., vol. 27, July 1948, pp. 379-423, and Oct. 1948, pp. 623-656.
3. P.N. Edwards, The Closed World, Table 7.1, p. 215.
4. S.S. Stevens ed. Handbook of Experimental Psychology, John Wiley & Sons, 1951, pp. 985-1039. The breadth of Licklider and Miller as psychologists, beyond PAL, is suggested by their individual articles on hoarding behavior in the white rat.
5. Licklider's career is described by the historians cited in Ref. 1 and by R.M. Fano, "Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider, March 11, 1915— June 26, 1990," Biographical Memoirs, vol. 75, National Academy of Sciences, National Academy Press, 1998, pp. 191-214. Miller's accomplishments are described by historians B.J. Baars, The Cognitive Revolution in Psychology, Guilford Press, 1986, and P.N. Edwards, The Closed World, and by his colleagues in W. Hirst, ed., The Making of Cognitive Psychology: Essays in Honor of George A. Miller, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1988.
6. The proceedings of the second conference were published in J. Acoust. Soc. Am., vol. 22, no. 6, Nov. 1950, pp. 689-806. Mary Parlee, who is writing a history of psychology and brain science at MIT, told me of these conferences.
7. The conference proceedings were published in Trans. IRE Professional Group on Information Theory, vol. IT-2, no. 3, Sept. 1956. On the conference's anticipation of cognitive science, see, for example, B.J. Baars, The Cognitive Revolution in Psychology, and P.N. Edwards, The Closed World.
8. G.A. Miller, E. Galanter, and K.H. Pribram, Plans and the Structure of Behavior, Holt Rinehart & Winston, New York, 1960. I used Miller's book Language and Communication (McGraw-Hill1951) as a text in courses I taught at Michigan and MIT",He included an article based on my doctoral dissertation (J.A. Swets, W.P. Tanner Jr., and T.G. Birdsall, "Decision Processes in Perception," Psychological Rev., vol. 68, no. 5, Sept. 1961, pp. 301-340) in his collection of articles in Mathematics and Psychology, John Wiley & Sons, 1964, pp. 184-197.
9. K.N. Stevens, W.A. Rosenblith, and R.H. Bolt, "A Community's Reaction to Noise: Can It Be Forecast?" Noise Control, vol. 1, no 1, Jan. 1955, pp. 63-71; K.N. Stevens and J.J. Baruch, "Community Noise and City Planning," Handbook of Noise Control, C.M. Harris, ed., McGraw-Hill, 1957. I won't generally list later positions and honors, but will identify the authors just listed by mentioning that Stevens won the National Medal of Science; Rosenblith, a PAL alumnus, became MIT provost; Bolt served as associate director of the National Science Foundation before joining BBN full time as chair of its board; and Baruch served as assistant secretary of Commerce for Science and Technology. (While this paper was being completed, in lat2003, the National Medal of Science was awarded to Leo Beranek.)
10. Giving up psychology at MIT and Lincoln Laboratory was a tough decision for Licklider because he had assembled a "dream team"; see M.M. Waldrop, The Dream Machine, p. 105. It included Joe Bennett, Jim Degan, Fred Frick, Bert Green, Bill Harris, Herb Jenkins, Bill McGill, George Miller, Keith Smith, Warren Torgerson, Ben White, and Douwe Yntema. New staff arriving at MIT as Licklider was leaving, or shortly after, were Davis Howes, Roger Brown, Michael Wallach, Ed Shein, Ron Melzack, Dave Green, and me. We joined in a monthly dinner meeting called the Pretzel Twist with other psychologists in town, including Dick Herrnstein, Duncan Luce, and Roger Shepard.
11. Licklider's excitement about computers led some of his friends to think that he lost interest in psychology and psychoacoustics at this time. However, Bob Fano's memoir (see Ref. 5) on him for the National Academy of Sciences documents his interest in these fields throughout his career.
12. D.M. Green and J.A. Swets, Signal Detection Theory and Psychophysics, John Wiley & Sons, 1966. Reprinted with corrections by R.E. Krieger, 1974; now in print by Peninsula, 1988.
13. To close the circle, Green's appointment in the psychology department at Harvard was as professor of psychophysics, a title created originally for Smitty Stevens, director of PAL.
14. I chose to stay at BBN because I liked its culture and people and appreciated the relief it offered from teaching and other academic duties as well as the opportunity to do both basic and applied research; I could continue to pursue pure psychophysics and also do something more humanitarian. There was, however, a push from MIT as well as a pull from BBN. The six psychology professors at MIT did not enjoy life under a new chairman and left within a two-year period.
15. M.M. Waldrop, The Dream Machine, p. 152.
16. As friend and patron, Licklider introduced Dave Green and me to the Acoustical Society and was instrumental in our elections as Fellows a few years later. Dave went on to win the Society's three major medals and serve as president. As president, he joined predecessors Bolt, Beranek, Licklider, and Kryter, as well as three or four other BBNers from the physical acoustics part of the company.
17. A.B. Kristofferson, "Successiveness Discrimination as a Two-State Quantal Process," Science, vol. 158, no. 3806, 8 Dec. 1967, pp. 1337-1339; J.A. Swets and A.B. Kristofferson, "Attention," Ann. Rev. Psychology, vol. 21, 1970, pp. 339-366.
18. Wallace J. Gardner, a local dentist, had found that sounds in earphones, controlled both by a dentist and a patient, were effective in suppressing pain for most patients during dental operations. Licklider developed a psychophysiological model for the process, aided by experiments on pain conducted by Alex Weisz and Ron Melzack, the latter an MIT psychologist working part time at BBN (I served Melzack as an experimental subject, transported by my favorite music as my bare foot remained in a pail of ice water). The audio-analgesia work was reported in J.C.R. Licklider, "On Psychophysiological Models," Sensory Communication, W.A. Rosenblith, ed., MIT Press, 1961, pp. 49-72.
19. Dick Pew told me that Licklider gave him and Dave Green the request for proposal for a pattern-recognition project on a Tuesday with a mailing date for the proposal on the following Tuesday. Dave returned the RFP to Licklider on Friday with the comment that he and Dick found that they could not generate a good proposal. Licklider worked on it over the weekend and mailed it on Tuesday. When the soliciting agency's review was completed and the contract awarded to BBN, the responsible technical officer at the agency asked whether it was the proposal or the final report. Licklider had a way of brilliantly recasting the statement of a problem in an RFP while making his enhancements seem like the full intentions of the statement's author. That author would realize that the contract could not possibly be let to anyone proposing to work on the pedestrian problem as originally conceived.
20. J.C.R. Licklider,Libraries of the Future, MIT Press, 1965. If memory serves, Licklider dictated the final report while giving a week's forced bed rest to a troublesome back at a San Diego motel. Project secretary Millie Webster and I in Cambridge were called frequently that week and the project staff was on alert.
21. J.C.R. Licklider, "Man-Computer Symbiosis," IRE Trans. Human Factors in Eng., vol. 1, no. 1, Mar. 1960, pp. 4-11.
22. In addition to the citations in Ref. 2 above, see Funding a Revolution: Government Support for Computing Research, National Academy Press, 1999, and C.I. Kita, "J.C.R. Licklider's Vision for the IPTO," IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, vol. 25, no. 3, 2003, pp. 62-77.
23. J.C.R. Licklider, "To Members of the Intergalactic Computer Network," ARPA memorandum, 25 April 1963.
24. Bob Taylor studied with Acoustical Society regular Lloyd Jeffress, a good friend of the psychoacousticians at BBN, who had organized the famed 1948 Hixon Symposium, published as Cerebral Mechanisms in Behavior, L.A. Jeffress, ed., John Wiley & Sons, 1951. The book included chapters by John von Neumann ("The General and Logical Theory of Automata"), Warren McCulloch ("Why the Mind is in the Head"), Karl Lashley ("The Problem of the Serial Order of Behavior") and Wolfgang Kohler ("Relational Determination in Perception"). T. Marill and L.G. Roberts, "Toward a Cooperative Network of Time-Shared Computers," Proc. Am. Federation of Information Processing Societies, Fall Joint Computer Conf., Spartan Books, vol29, 1966, pp".425-431. Tom Marill's company was CCA, the Computer Corporation of America. I1974, he asked me to think about becoming its president for a new phase of its development. It was an invitation I treasure, along with an offer of a research-staff position from Jerry Elkind when he was with RCA. Bob Kahn reminded me a few years ago that I gave him his first annual review at BBN. He remembered that when I asked him what he had accomplished and he said, "Well, with mathematics it's sometimes hard to know," I replied that if he didn't know then I surely didn't, and he would not get a pay raise. I don't recall if we left it at that.
25. J.C.R. Licklider, "Man-Computer Symbiosis," p. 4.
26. R.W. Pew, "Evolution of Human-Computer Interaction: From Memex to Bluetooth and Beyond," The Human-Computer Interaction Handbook: Fundamentals of Evolving Technologies and Emerging Applications, J.A. Jacko and A. Sears, eds., Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003, p. 4.
28. D.G. Bobrow, "Syntactic Analysis of English by Computer— A Survey," Proc. Am. Federation of Information Processing Societies, Am. Federation of Information Processing Societies, vol. 24, Nov. 1963, pp. 365-387.
29. M.C. Grignetti, "A Note on the Entropy of Words in Printed English," Information and Control, vol. 7, no. 3, 1964, pp. 304-306.
30. J.A. Swets, "Information Retrieval Systems," Science, vol. 141, no. 3577, 1963, pp. 245-250. Reprinted in M. Kochen, ed., The Growth of Knowledge, John Wiley & Sons, 1967, pp. 174-184; T. Saracevic, ed., Introduction to Information Science, Bowker, 1970, pp. 576-583.
31. J.A. Swets, "Effectiveness of Information Retrieval Methods," Am. Documentation, vol. 20, no. 1, 1969, pp. 72-89. Reprinted in B. Griffith, ed., Key Papers in Information Science, Knowledge Industry Publications, 1980, pp. 349-366.
32. Black later invented with M.S. Scholes and R.C. Merton a method for valuing stock market options that, after his death, won the Nobel Prize for the other two collaborators.
33. D.G. Bobrow et al., "A Computer-Program System to Facilitate the Study of Technical Documents," Am. Documentation, vol. 17, no. 4,. 1966, pp. 186-189.
34. J.C.R. Licklider and W.E. Clark, "On-Line Man-Computer Communication," Proc. Am. Federation of Information Processing Societies, vol. 21, May 1962, pp. 113-128.
35. T. Marill and D.M. Green, "Statistical Recognition Functions and the Design of Pattern Recognizers," IRE Trans. Electronic Computers, vol. EC-9, no. 4, 1960; "On the Effectiveness of Receptors in Recognition Systems," IEEE Trans. Professional Technical Group Information Theory, vol. IT-9, no. 1, 1963, pp. 11-17.
36. T. Marill et al., "Cyclops-1: A Second-Generation Recognition System," Proc. Am. Federation of Information Processing Societies, Fall Joint Computer Conf., Spartan Books, vol. 24, 1963, pp. 27-33.
37. Jumping ahead a few years: Danny Bobrow and Warren Teitelman stayed at BBN until 1971 when they were recruited by Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) by the director of its new Computer Science Laboratory, Jerry Elkind. Jerry had been recruited by Bob Taylor. PARC's large contribution to the development of the personal computer is, of course, another whole story; see, for example, M.M. Waldrop, The Dream Machine. To the extent it came under Taylor's and Elkind's leadership, it harks back directly to Licklider's influence.
38. J.C.R. Licklider, "Preliminary Experiments in Computer-Aided Teaching," Programmed Learning and Computer-Based Instruction, J.E. Coulson, ed., John Wiley & Sons, 1962, pp. 217-239.
39. B.F. Green, Digital Computers in Research, McGraw-Hill, 1962, pp. 189-190.
40. J.A. Swets et al., "Learning to Identify Nonverbal Sounds: An Application of a Computer as a Teaching Machine," J. Acoust. Soc. of America, vol. 34, no. 7, 1962, pp. 928-925; J.A. Swets et al., "Computer-Aided Instruction in Perceptual Identification," Behavioral Science, vol. 11, no. 2, 1966, pp. 98-104. Ed Fredkin suggested to me that the PD1 could generate the sounds and send them to earphones along a wire appropriated from the display scope— a far cry from the analog possibilities I was discussing with Licklider. Ed wrote a (sine wave) program in a matter of hours that permitted me to produce a large number of sounds. William Fletcher, a military jet pilot and Caltech undergraduate with Fredkin who had joined BBN, stayed up overnight to program the features that allowed versatile control of the lesson and data analysis. Harry Rudloe programmed the graphic displays and controls. The experiments were run by Earl Winter, Susan Millman, Judy Harris, and Linda McElroy. Judy had been a teaching assistant to me at MIT. Linda came from Lincoln Laboratory; she was house-sitting for the Lickliders in the fall of 1956 when my wife and I and our two preschool sons moved in for a few weeks upon arriving in Massachusetts from Michigan. The house-sitting anecdote in the preceding paragraph reminds me of Licklider's theory of least effort for administration, perhaps worthy of a single example. In September 1956, I had sold a house in Ann Arbor, bought a new car, driven my family to Massachusetts, and bought a house there when I went to the office of Ralph Freeman, chairman of MIT's Department of Economics and Social Sciences, to introduce myself as his newest assistant professor. He looked puzzled and said he didn't recall Licklider telling him of my job offer (it was made to me in a somewhat ambiguous telegram from Licklider), and as I began to rue finding out in this fashion about Licklider's fabled disinterest in administrative details, Freeman said that any friend of Licklider's was a friend of his, or words to that effect. He would immediately make my appointment official, and, moreover, because MIT was on a 1 July, 12-month basis for salaries, I could go to the bursar's office on the morrow and pick up my summer's pay. (Small wonder I blithely followed the man to BBN.)
41. J.A. Swets, "Some Possible Uses of a Small Computer as a Teaching Machine," Datamation, vol. 10, no. 6, 1964, p. 39.
42. W. Feurzeig et al., "Computer-Aided Teaching in Medical Diagnosis," J. Medical Education, vol. 39, no. 8, 1964, pp. 746-754; J.A. Swets and W. Feurzeig, "Computer-Aided Instruction," Science, vol. 150, no. 3696, 29 Oct. 1965, pp. 572-576. The second reference illustrates the ability of BBN staff to publish articles of general scientific interest in academic journals. Kryter, Kristofferson, and Senders also published in Science during this period. Apropos BBNers have historically been available to serve on committees assembled to apply science to national problems. As an example Kryter, Green, and I were on a committee of the National Research Council to recommend a standard fire-alarm signal. The committee recommended arepetitive temporal pattern— dot dot dash … dot dot dash— that could be used with whatever physical signal would best combat the ambient noise of a particular setting (apartment building factory shopping mall, and soon). There recommendation has been adopted as a standard ( simplified to three pulses of equal length) both in the US and internationally but is not so far in use. J.A.Swets et al., "A Proposed Standard Fire-Alarm Signal, " J. Acoustical Soc. of America, vol 57 no. 31975 pp. 756-757. The past few years I've been on a National Research Council committee that used signal detection theory to evaluate the accuracy and efficacy of the polygraph for lie detection. The Polygraph and Lie Detection, National Academy Press 2003.
43. D.H. Klatt and D. Dodds, "Computer-Controlled Display for Second Language Learning," J. Acoustical Soc. of America, vol. 45, no. 1, 1969, p. 324(A).
44. K.N. Stevens and M.M. Klatt, "Analysis of Vowels Produced by Spanish and English Speakers," J. Acoustical Soc. of America, vol. 46, no. 1 (Part 1), 1969, p. 110(A).
45. D.N. Kalikow and J.A. Swets, "Experiments with Computer-Controlled Displays in Second-Language Learning," IEEE Trans. Audio Electro-Acoustics, vol. AU-20, no. 1, Mar. 1972, pp. 23-28.
46. R.S. Nickerson, D.N. Kalikow, and K.N. Stevens, "Computer-Aided Speech Training for the Deaf," J. Speech and Hearing Disorders, vol. 41, 1976, pp. 120-132.
47. M.S. Mayzner and W.R. Goodwin, "Historical Perspectives," Minicomputers in Sensory and Information-Processing Research, M.S. Mayzner and T. Dolan, eds., Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1978, p. 21. The potential of the system to integrate studies of perception, learning, thinking, and problem solving was pointed out by B.W. White, "Studies of Perception," Computer Applications in the Behavioral Sciences, H. Borko, ed., Prentice-Hall, 1962, pp. 302-303. What was innovative about this effort, I hope I've made clear, was to the credit of Ed Fredkin and Bill Fletcher. J.A. Swets, D.M. Green, and E.F. Winter, "Learning to Identify Nonverbal Sounds," J. Acoustical Soc. of America, vol 33, no".6, 1961, p. 855(A).

Index Terms:
psycho-acoustics, communications theory, man-machine integration, PDP-1 computer, time-sharing, computer-based instruction
John A. Swets, "The ABC's of BBN: From Acoustics to Behavioral Sciences to Computers," IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, vol. 27, no. 2, pp. 15-29, April-June 2005, doi:10.1109/MAHC.2005.32
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