Robert Taylor, Innovator Who Helped Shape Modern Computing, Dies at 85

Mr. Taylor at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in California in an undated photo. (Palo Alto Research Center)

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.

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SOURCE: NY Times, John Markoff