The tech pioneer who kick-started the internet
Robert Taylor 1932–2017
On his first day as a research director at the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) in 1966, Robert Taylor spotted a problem with his new workplace. The agency was funding three separate computer research projects— two in California, one in Massachusetts— and Taylor had three computer terminals in his office, each linked to a different research team. But the researchers didn’t share a network, and so couldn’t communicate and collaborate with one another. “It doesn’t take much of an imagination to realize this was kind of silly,” Taylor recalled in 2009. “You should have only one terminal that can go to any system that’s on the network.” He took his complaint to ARPA’s boss, who immediately pulled $1 million from the missile defense budget and gave it to Taylor. By 1969, researchers under Taylor’s guidance had developed ARPAnet, the forerunner of the internet.
Taylor was born in Dallas and adopted as a newborn by a Methodist minister and his wife, said The New York Times. While earning a master’s in experimental psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, “he developed a fascination with new forms of human-computer interaction.”
While using the college’s monstrous mainframe to analyze his findings, he grew incensed at the laborious process of entering data with punch cards. He decided there must be a way to make computers more userfriendly. Working as a project manager at NASA in 1961, Taylor “learned of research into interaction between humans and computers” being conducted at the Stanford Research Institute, said CNET.com. He directed more funds to the project, which resulted in the invention of the computer mouse. Then came three years at ARPA, after which Taylor “moved to Xerox’s famous Palo Alto Research Center, where he oversaw the design and creation of the Alto”— widely considered the first personal computer.
Taylor’s team at Xerox “also invented the laser printer,” said The Washington Post, as well as “an early word-processing system.” Steve Jobs visited Taylor’s lab in 1979, and “reportedly came away with ideas he used in Apple computers.” Taylor registered no major patents and never grew wealthy from his world-changing work, but had no regrets. “I deliberately avoided the business world,” he said in 2000, “because frankly, I didn’t want to work with the idiots you have to work with in order to build a successful company.”