LINC succeeded, but why? Surely because of Wes Clark's original insights. And, as Mary Allen Wilkes put it, "persistence, commitment, drive, and enthusiasm" of the LINC team. And the time was right -- digital computers were arriving. Yet, there was another essential ingredient: external support. Without the NIH and NASA, LINC would probably have died aborning. As Dick Clayton observed, "It took an inspired and dedicated group of people to build LINC, but it couldn't have happened without Government support. We need the Government for revolutions -- the commercial world for succeeding evolutions."
The LINC Evaluation Board confirmed Clayton's view. They wrote, "Considering the highly suppositional character and relatively great cost of an undertaking such as a program to evaluate the LINC, it seems unlikely that any mechanism for funding the program could be found other than from Federal agencies -- disinterested parties with no other master to serve than the public welfare. At best, the demand for any highly specialized scientific computer is restricted; while it is altogether feasible for industry to produce, even in small numbers, a machine in which it has no engineering investment, it would add tremendously to the cost of the machines (perhaps prohibitively) if engineering development costs were included."
Today, the evaluation report's comment on "no other master to serve" seems idealistically effusive. Yet, it reminds us of an earlier optimism. What Sapir called "the sassy days at NIH" is out of fashion. The LINC program was a bureaucratic and technical gamble -- such risk-taking is rare today.
Science, especially the neurosciences, has depended on radically new instrumentation. Neurophysiology would be medieval without the development of brain electrode recording. Scanners, developed with 1960's technology, may revolutionize both laboratory neuroscience and clinical practice. Artificial intelligence is stimulating new theoretical and empirical advances in cognitive science.
But economic pressures seem to prod the Federal Government increasingly to relegate science-oriented technology to the private sector. As Clayton pointed out, the private sector responds with improvements rather than radical innovation. Stockholders demand profits -- not promises.
LINC has now been replaced by newer, faster, cheaper machines. But its heritage endures. As a new philosophy of computer access, LINC pointed the way for succeeding information processing generations. Perhaps equally important, the LINC program demonstrated that resourceful and imaginative Federal management could influence the course of both science and industry.
Today's idea may be barely rising from some remote seed. With proper nurture, in 20 years we may be celebrating similar successes in biomedical technology.