Robert Taylor, who played a major role in the invention of Internet, dies at 85


Robert W Taylor, the father of modern computing, who is credited with having played the most indispensable role in the creation of the interweb, or Internet as we know today, died on Thursday at his home in Woodside, California, of complications arising from Parkinson's disease, his son Kurt told The New York Times. He was 85.

Robert Taylor through the ages | Images by the  New York Times

According to an obituary on the legend published in the New York Times, Taylor was born on February 10, 1932, in Dallas, and was adopted 28 days later in San Antonio by a Methodist minister Rev. Raymond Taylor and his wife Audrey. He graduated from Southern Methodist University in Dallas and continued to do postgraduate work at the University of Texas at Austin, where his master’s thesis in experimental psychology got him interested in humans' interaction with computers.

When he learned of the tiresome process of entering the data he had gathered on how the ear and the brain localise sound, into the centre's mainframe computer, he was "appalled,” and wondered why the computer cannot do what the calculator can – that is, "manipulate symbols (using) 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."

His professional journey began in 1966, after he joined the Pentagon as the director of the Information Processing Techniques Office, part of the Advanced Research Projects Agency or ARPA which, at the time, was funding three separate computer research projects, and communicating with each of them using three separate computer terminals. Robert wanted to declutter, and decided to invent a way to use a single computer network to do the job. He pitched this to the head of ARPA, netted a million dollars in funding to flesh it out, and gave the world Arpanet, the forefather of the Internet.

He went on to design a predecessor of the PC – the Alto computer – during his stint at Xerox's storied Palo Alto Research Center in Northern California, and also contributed to the creation of the mouse during his time at NASA as project manager. He financially backed Douglas Engelbart in exploring ways to let humans provide input directly into the computers, namely, the mouse.

At NASA, he became an understudy of JCR Licklider, the psychologist and computer scientist who wrote the paper “Man-Computer Symbiosis”, which was instrumental in the development of the Internet and the PC, and also provided fundamental inputs for the shaping up of modern AI and robotics.

 At the Pentagon in the 1960s, 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 defence secretary, Robert S McNamara, fix the problem.

Many pioneering entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Charles Simonyi drew inspiration from conversations with Taylor to create path-breaking technologies that took computing by storm.

Some of Taylor's most recent contributions include the Digital Equipment Systems Research Laboratory, which he created in the 1990s, in Palo Alto, which, in turn, gave the world one of the first Internet search engines, AltaVista.

Robert had been presented with the National Medal of Technology in 1999 and the Charles Stark Draper Prize in 2004, and in 2013, he was inducted into the Computer History Museum Hall of Fellows in Mountain View.