Commentary

Internet Communications Visionary Robert Taylor, 85

Computer scientist Robert Taylor pushed the development of Arpanet, the precursor to the Internet, predicted in 1968 that we would someday be able to communicate better with each other through machines than face-to-face and offered key support for the development of the mouse. Suffering from Parkinson’s disease, he died last week in Woodside, Calif., at 85.

In a 2009 story for the Los Angeles Times under the hed, “Why Robert Taylor is one of the most important figures in the history of computer science,” Michael Hiltzik writes that the launch of the Internet on Oct. 29, 1969, should begin with Taylor “because his role reminds us that sometimes private enterprise isn't always up to the task of advancing technological progress, and sometimes even gets in the way.”

Taylor, with a background in psychology and mathematics, “was inspired by the idea of expanding human interaction using computer technology, Guy Raz noted in an interview profiling Taylor in 2009,” writesNPR’s Emma Bowman.

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“In the 1960s, Taylor was a researcher at the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA, where his frustration with what he saw as inefficient communication led him to envision an interconnected computer network,” Bowman continues. “At ARPA, Taylor had three separate computer terminals in his office to communicate with his colleagues across Berkeley, MIT, UCLA and Stanford. Each terminal connected to a different computer in a different part of the country, he told Raz.”

“To get in touch with someone in Santa Monica through the computer, I'd sit in front of one terminal, but to do the same thing with someone in Massachusetts, I would have to get up and move over to another terminal,” Taylor said. “You don't have to look at this very long to realize this is silly. This is stupid. So I decided, OK, I want to build a network that connects all of these.”

Taylor later worked at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center — PARC — where he led a team that helped create the Alto. 

“The Alto supplied each researcher with an individual workstation instead of sharing time on a room-sized mainframe. It was designed to use a graphical user interface, which enabled the user to command the device through icons, windows and menus instead of typing text commands in computer language,” according to the Associated Press’ obit. “The technology inspired Microsoft’s Windows software and the Apple computers.”

Taylor became a central figure in a book the L.A. Times’ Hiltzik wrote about PARC. After writing the paper “The Computer as a Communication Device” with J.C.R. Licklider, “Taylor tried to interest private industry in his project, but the companies he approached dismissed the idea. IBM told him its computers already talked to one another, completely missing his point that their computers should talk to everyone else’s,” Hiltzik tells us.

“AT&T, then the monopoly proprietor of the phone system over which the network would operate, fought Taylor's project tooth and nail, contending that the network's ‘packet switching’ technology (a method of transmitting data in discrete blocks) wouldn't work on its phone lines and might even damage them. Packet switching remains the Internet's governing technology to this day.”

As for his role in the development of the mouse, Taylor was a project manager at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in Washington in 1961 when he “decided to pump more money” into work Douglas C. Engelbart was doing at Stanford Research Institute that “led directly to Engelbart’s invention of the mouse, which would be instrumental in the design of both Macintosh and Microsoft Windows-based computers,” John Markoff writes for the New York Times

“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,” Leslie Berlin, a historian at the Stanford University Silicon Valley Archives project, tells Markoff.

Taylor was awarded the National Medal of Technology in 1999 and the Charles Stark Draper Prize in 2004, the highest award of the National Academy of Engineering, according toPalo Alto Online. He was inducted into the Computer History Museum Hall of Fellows in 2013. 

“Taylor planned to be a Methodist minister, like his father. He ended up an evangelist for an idea that changed the world: easy-to-use computers that talk to each other,” Marc Weber wrote in a profile for that induction.

“I was never interested in the computer as a mathematical device, but as a communication device,” Taylor said.

Three sons — Kurt, Erik and Derek — and three grandchildren, survive.

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