Robert W. Taylor Dies

April 18, 2017

I guess the first question you are going to ask is “Who is Robert W. Taylor?” Well in 1968, Robert W. Taylor made a prediction that would guide the course of computer science for years to come. He said:

“In a few years, we will be able to communicate more effectively through a machine than face to face.”

There have been many people throughout the history of computing that have had a huge impact on technological advancement but Robert Taylor remains one of the quiet ones. The work he did during the sixties and seventies really did pave the way for how we use technology now.

During his early life, Taylor had left the Navy after a two year stint and became a professional student at the University of Texas where his studies took him take an undergraduate degree in experimental psychology with minors in mathematics, philosophy, English and religion. Two years later, in 1959, he earned a master’s degree in psychology but did not want to pursue the PhD as he had no interest in the softer regions of psychology like abnormal psychology, social psychology, clinical psychology, child psychology because they was not scientific enough for his liking.

After leaving Texas he worked for a year at a prep school in Florida teaching maths and basketball but the salary was not sufficient so he took engineering jobs in the aviation industry. This led to an invitation to work at NASA’s Office of Advanced Research and Technology where he worked on the Apollo program. Here he met the visionary, Douglas Engelbart and Taylor directed funding to Engelbart’s studies of computer-display technology which led to the invention of another computer classic, the mouse.

In 1962 he met J. C. R. Licklider who was heading the new Information Processing Techniques Office of the Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA) of the United States Department of Defence. ARPA was created in response to the Soviet launching of Sputnik 1 in 1957, and its mission was to ensure U.S. military technology would be more advanced than that of the nation’s potential enemies. Taylor joined ARPA in 1965 and by 1966 became the director of the Information Processing Techniques Office and during his directorship worked on the ARPANET project. I guess your next question is “What is ARPANET?”


Working out of the Pentagon, Taylor had three terminals connected to three different system at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), University of California, Berkeley and System Development Corporation (SDC) based in Santa Monica, California – SDC is noted for being one of the first software companies.  He recongnised that each system had its own community of users but they were isolated. Taylor wanted to build a network where each computer could talk to the other. ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) was a very early form of a computer network and is the foundation of the largest network on the planet – the internet! In 1968, Licklider and Taylor published a paper, “The Computer as a Communication Device” which truly laid out the future of what the Internet would eventually become.

At ARPA, Taylor was sent to investigate inconsistent reports coming from the Vietnam War and made several trips to the area to help setup a computer centre in Saigon. This project took him away from the research and 1969 knowing that ARPANET would work, he decided to leave where he joined Xerox.


I guess your next question is “Why did he join a photocopier company?”  Whilst Xerox is famous for its large-scale office copiers, it wanted to diversify and founded a new operation in 1970, the Palo Alto Research Centre which became better-known as Xerox PARC.

The work carried out at Xerox resulted in the creation of many important components that are still in common use today. These projects includes laser printers, computer-generated bitmap graphics, the graphical user interface, featuring windows and icons, operated with a mouse, the WYSIWYG text editor, Interpress, a resolution-independent graphical page-description language and the precursor to PostScript, Ethernet as a local-area computer network. Steve Jobs famously quoted painter Pablo Picasso: Good artists copy; great artists steal – and that’s exactly what Jobs did when he took the idea of the graphical user interface from Xerox and used it for the Apple Macintosh 10 years after Xerox invented it!

Much of PARC’s early success was down to Taylor’s leadership of its Computer Science Laboratory who guided the lab as associate manager from 1970 to 1977 and as manager from 1977 to 1983. However, Xerox were too slow to commercialise their ideas and when Taylor left to join Digital, many others left to join other business or set up their own. A number of GUI engineers left to join Apple Computer.  John Warnock and Chuck Geschke left and founded Adobe Systems.

So as you can see Robert Taylor played a major part in the technologies we use today.