Robert Taylor, Innovator Who Shaped Modern Computing, Dies at 85
Like many inventions, the internet was the work of countless hands. But perhaps no one deserves more credit for that world-changing technological leap than Robert W. Taylor, who died on Thursday at 85 at his home in Woodside, Calif. Indeed, few people were as instrumental in shaping the modern computer-connected world as he.
His seminal moment came in 1966. He had just taken a new position at the Pentagon — director of the Information Processing Techniques Office, part of the Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as ARPA — and on his first day on the job it became immediately obvious to him what the office lacked and what it needed.
At the time, ARPA was funding three separate computer research projects and using three separate computer terminals to communicate with them. Mr. Taylor decided that the department needed a single computer network to connect each project with the others.
“I went to see Charlie Herzfeld, who was the head of ARPA, and laid the idea on him,” Mr. Taylor recalled in an interview with The Times. “He liked the idea immediately, and he took a million dollars out of the ballistic missile defense budget and put it into my budget right then and there.” He added, “The first funding came that month.”
His idea led to the Arpanet, the forerunner of the internet. A half-decade later, at Xerox‘s storied Palo Alto Research Center in Northern California, Mr. Taylor was a key figure in another technological breakthrough: funding the design of the Alto computer, which is widely described as the forerunner of the personal computer.
Mr. Taylor even had a vital role in the invention of the computer mouse. In 1961, at the dawn of the space age, he was about a year into his job as a project manager at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in Washington when he learned about the work of a young computer scientist at Stanford Research Institute, later called SRI International.
The scientist, Douglas Engelbart, was exploring the possibilities of direct interaction between humans and computers. Mr. Taylor decided to pump more money into the work, and the financial infusion led directly to Mr. Engelbart’s invention of the mouse, which would be instrumental in the design of both Macintosh and Microsoft Windows-based computers. (Mr. Engelbart died in 2013.)
“Any way you look at it, from kick-starting the internet to launching the personal computer revolution, Bob Taylor was a key architect of our modern world,” said Leslie Berlin, a historian at the Stanford University Silicon Valley Archives project.At NASA, as the newly elected Kennedy administration was putting the nation on a path to the moon, Mr. Taylor became a friend and protégé of J. C. R. Licklider, a psychologist and computer scientist who had written a pioneering paper titled “Man-Computer Symbiosis.”
As much as any single document, the paper became a road map for the development of the internet and the personal computer, as well as spectacular advances in artificial intelligence and robotics.
Robert William Taylor was born on Feb. 10, 1932, in Dallas and was adopted 28 days later in San Antonio by the Rev. Raymond Taylor, a Methodist minister, and his wife, Audrey. Growing up, Robert moved frequently as his father was assigned to different parishes; he often spent summers in Austin with an aunt and uncle.
After studying for a while at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, he went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Texas at Austin. It was while working on his master’s thesis in experimental psychology that he developed a fascination with new forms of human-computer interaction.
His thesis research focused on how the ear and the brain localize sound. To analyze his data, he had to bring it to the university’s computing center, where a staff member behind a protective glass wall helped operate the center’s mainframe computer. The operator showed him the laborious process of entering his data and his program onto computer punch cards, the standard of the era.
“I was appalled,” Mr. Taylor recalled years later in an interview at the university, “and after I thought about it for a while, I was angry.” The data entry process, he said, was “ridiculous.”
“I thought it was insulting,” he added.
He left the center, went back to his laboratory and used a desktop calculator instead.He knew, he said, that the calculator “could manipulate symbols — it used high voltages and low voltages to represent 1s and 0s — and that 1s and 0s could be combined to represent letters, and letters could be combined to represent text, and text could be combined to represent knowledge.
e knew, he said, that the calculator “could manipulate symbols — it used high voltages and low voltages to represent 1s and 0s — and that 1s and 0s could be combined to represent letters, and letters could be combined to represent text, and text could be combined to represent knowledge.
“Why couldn’t computers do that?”
Two years later, he read “Man-Computer Symbiosis,” and the paper would serve as a basic reference for his work at NASA, the Pentagon, Xerox and later at the Digital Equipment Corporation. In 1968, he and Dr. Licklider wrote a paper together, “The Computer as a Communications Device,” which drew the broad outlines of how computer networks might transform society.
At the Pentagon in the 1960s, Mr. Taylor was called on to help in the war effort in Vietnam. President Lyndon B. Johnson, he was told, was upset at getting what he believed to be inaccurate “body count” numbers, and he had demanded that his defense secretary, Robert S. McNamara, fix the problem.Mr. McNamara called the director of ARPA, and Mr. Taylor was ordered to travel to Vietnam to straighten out the information systems being used to report the progress of the war. By the end of his second trip, Mr. Taylor said, he was convinced that the United States military had no business being in Southeast Asia.
He left the Pentagon in 1969 and taught for a year at the University of Utah before joining the newly formed Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, or PARC, in California. There, he joined a small group of researchers who were refining many of the technologies that had been pioneered by Mr. Engelbart at the Stanford Research Institute and who were also creating new ones, including graphics-based personal computing.
Mr. Taylor’s team built a prototype personal computer called the Alto, and another group, led by Alan Kay, added a software system that pioneered the so-called desktop metaphor, in which documents are represented by graphical icons on the computer display.
That technology in turn became the inspiration for Apple’s Lisa and Macintosh computers and for Microsoft’s Windows software.The laser printer was also invented at PARC, and, besides generating profit for Xerox, it would play an important role in the “office of the future” ideas that were being explored by Mr. Taylor’s group.
It was Steve Jobs, however, who profited the most when Xerox management allowed him to visit with Mr. Taylor’s group at the Palo Alto center. Mr. Jobs, drawing on ideas he encountered there, went on to be the first to successfully market the new style of computing.Similarly, Charles Simonyi, a young software designer who developed an early word-processing software program for the Alto, took many of the PARC ideas with him when he joined Microsoft.
Toward the end of his career, in the 1990s, Mr. Taylor created and ran the Digital Equipment Systems Research Laboratory in Palo Alto, which helped create one of the first internet search engines, AltaVista.
Mr. Taylor died of complications of Parkinson’s disease, his son Kurt said. Besides his son Kurt, Mr. Taylor is survived by two other sons, Erik and Derek; and three grandchildren. His marriage to Joanne Honnold ended in divorce.