Robert Taylor, Innovator Who Shaped Modern Computing, Dies at 85


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.”

Photo

Children using a Xerox Alto, widely described as the forerunner of the modern personal computer. Mr. Taylor funded its development and led the team that built it.

Credit
Xerox

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 earning a bachelor’s degree from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, he went on to do graduate work at the University of Texas at Austin. It was there, 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.

“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.

Photo

Robert W. Taylor in Woodside, Calif., in 1999.

Credit
Peter DaSilva

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.

At Xerox PARC, Mr. Taylor was particularly known for fostering a weekly meeting of computer scientists to discuss a wide range of issues, from computing technology to the feats of Uri Geller, the Israeli illusionist. At each meeting, one member of the group would present a topic for discussion.

The meetings were known as Dealers, because the presenter would sit like a blackjack dealer in the center of an imposing circle of computer scientists reclining in beanbag chairs. No-holds-barred discussions and debates would ensue, and no one profited more from them than Mr. Taylor.

“Bob amped up tension of the Dealer meetings to get people to perform well,” recalled Ted Kaehler, who attended the meetings as a young PARC software designer, “and he used it to figure out what was good and what wasn’t.”

Correction: April 14, 2017

Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this obituary misstated the day Mr. Taylor died. It was Thursday, not Friday.

Correction: April 14, 2017

An earlier version of this obituary, using information from Mr. Taylor’s family, misstated the given name of his mother. It was Audrey, not Marie.

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