Nearly 50 years ago, computer visionary Robert Taylor helped lay the foundations for what we know today as the internet.
Taylor, who had lived with Parkinson’s, died Thursday at his home in Woodside, Calif.
Bob Taylor, like many of his peers who helped build the internet, wasn’t a computer scientist. He graduated The University of Texas at Austin and had a background in psychology and mathematics. He was motivated by the idea of expanding human interactions using technology.
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.
Taylor began as a researcher at the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA, where he saw a frustrating and inefficient communication that led him to envision interconnected computer networks.
At ARPA, Taylor had three independent computer terminals in his office to communicate with his colleagues across Berkeley, MIT, UCLA and Stanford. Each terminal connected to a different computer in a different part of the country.
“To get in touch with someone in Santa Monica through the computer, I’d sit in front of one terminal, but to do the same thing with someone in Massachusetts, I would have to get up and move over to another terminal,” Taylor said. “You don’t have to look at this very long to realize this is silly. This is stupid. So I decided, OK, I want to build a network that connects all of these.”
Robert Taylor passes at 85
That linked network, known as ARPANET, grew into what would become the internet. In building it, Taylor assembled a group of pioneering engineers, like Bill Duvall at Stanford, Len Kleinrock at UCLA and the 21-year-old programmer Charley Kline.
After many a learning experiences, Charley Kline, on the night of Oct. 29, 1969, sent an electronic message from a computer the size of a one-bedroom apartment to another computer at the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park. Duvall was on the receiving end of Klines communique.
This first communication over a shared computer network was — well, it was supposed to be the word “login.” On accident, Kline could only type the first two letters before a bug crashed his computer. As a result, “Lo” became the first utterance transmitted by the revolutionary communication.
“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,” Leslie Berlin, a historian at the Stanford University Silicon Valley Archives project, told The New York Times.
Uninterested in acclaim
In 1999, Taylor was awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation “for visionary leadership in the development of modern computing technology, including computer networks, the personal computer and the graphical user interface.” Being the man he was, Robert Taylor was unconcerned with getting his deserved recognition. In fact, when President Clinton awarded him the National Medal of Technology, Taylor didn’t even fly to Washington to accept it.
Taylor went on to create personal workstations with displays that incorporated icons instead of typed commands. These became the graphic template for the Apple Macintosh and Microsoft Windows.
In 2004, he and other PARC researchers were awarded the National Academy of Engineering’s Draper Prize for development of “the first practical networked personal computers.” His work to build the foundations of Network Infrastructure is still a basis for modern systems.
In addition to Kurt, Robert Taylor is survived by his two other sons, Erik and Derek, and three grandchildren.
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