Honorary Unsubscribe

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Computer networking visionary

Robert W. Taylor

An orphan, Taylor was adopted by a minister and his teacher wife. After a stint in the U.S. Navy Reserve during the Korean war, Taylor went back to school, but wasn’t sure what he wanted to study; “I just took courses that I was interested in.” His final degree was experimental psychology, with minors in math, philosophy, English, and religion. His first job? Engineering, with aerospace firms. In 1962, he was invited to join NASA’s Office of Advanced Research and Technology as a program manager after submitting a research proposal for a flight control simulation display. While there, he was able to direct research funding to interesting computer innovations, including funding Douglas Engelbart (Honorary Unsubscribe, 7 July 2013) of the Stanford Research Institute, specifically for computer-display technology that led to graphical displays, and a new input device: the computer mouse. But it was more than that: Taylor funded what was later called Engelbart’s 1968 “Mother of All Demos” where he showed the future of computing in addition to the graphical display and mouse: video conferencing, teleconferencing, hypertext, word processing, hypermedia, dynamic file linking, revision control, collaborative editing, and more — “everything we have in the way computers work today,” said Apple Computer co-founder Steve Wozniak years later.

Then it gets interesting: in 1965, Taylor had moved to the Defense Dept.’s Advanced Research Project Agency. On his first day, when he arrived at his office in the Pentagon, he saw he had computer terminals for each of the three computing projects ARPA was funding: one for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, another for the University of California, Berkeley, and a third connected to the System Development Corporation in Santa Monica, Calif. He hated that he needed three different terminals: wouldn’t it be more useful to network the computers all together? “I went to see Charlie Herzfeld, who was the head of ARPA, and laid the idea on him,” Taylor said later. “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.” The result of that research and development: ARPAnet, the direct predecessor to the Internet. Taylor, with J.C.R. Licklider, who had recruited him to ARPA, wrote a paper in 1968, “The Computer as a Communication Device”. The opening sentence set the direction for the new computer network: “In a few years, men will be able to communicate more effectively through a machine than face to face.” The paper is considered a roadmap to the development of the Internet. “The programmed digital computer’s presence can change the nature and value of communication even more profoundly than did the printing press and the picture tube, for, as we shall show, a well-programmed computer can provide direct access both to informational resources and to the processes for making use of the resources.” Why, computer networks could even enable “store-and-forward (i.e., store-for-just-a-moment-and-forward-right-away) message service” — we now call that email, first made possible on the ARPAnet in 1971 by Ray Tomlinson (Honorary Unsubscribe, 6 March 2016). Taylor didn’t invent the technologies to make the computer network work, he “just” came up with the idea, and helped direct government funds to the smart people who could invent the underlying technologies. By the next year, “I knew ARPAnet would work. So I wanted to leave,” Taylor said. He moved to Xerox Corporation’s Palo Alto Research Center in California, where he directed projects that leveraged the new computer network:

  • Powerful personal computers (the Xerox Alto) with windowed displays and graphical user interfaces that were the basis of the Macintosh. Taylor’s team built the computer itself, while a group by led by Alan Kay added the software-based “desktop metaphor.”
  • Ethernet, which networks local computers within a building or campus; and the first Internet, a network that connected the Ethernet to the ARPAnet utilizing PUP (PARC Universal Protocol), forerunner to TCP/IP.
  • The electronics and software that led to the laser printer and the graphical programs that allowed John Warnock and Chuck Geschke to take off and found Adobe Systems.
  • “What-you-see-is-what-you-get” (WYSIWYG) word-processing programs, such as Bravo that Charles Simonyi took to Microsoft to serve as the basis for Microsoft Word.

Xerox couldn’t figure out how to market the amazing technologies pouring out of the Computer Systems Laboratory, and Taylor — and most of his researchers — left Xerox in the early 1980s. Digital Equipment Corp. snapped up most of them, including Taylor, to form the Systems Research Center, also in Palo Alto, where they developed the Firefly multiprocessor workstation, the first multi-threaded Unix system, the first User Interface editor, a networked Window System, and the first searchable, full-text database of the majority of a new thing called the World Wide Web — the AltaVista search engine. Taylor retired in 1996. In 1999, he was awarded a 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,” the award citation says. “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,” says historian Leslie Berlin of the Stanford University Silicon Valley Archives project. Taylor suffered from various health problems, including Parkinson’s disease. He died at his home in Woodside, Calif., on April 13, at 85.

From This is True for 16 April 2017


Honorary Unsubscribe Books

HU BooksThe Early Writeups from This is True's popular Honorary Unsubscribe feature are now available for your Kindle (or Kindle software for your smartphone, tablet, or computer) as low-cost ebooks.

See details on Volume 1 (covering 1998 through 2000), Volume 2 (2001 through 2003), Volume 3 (2004 through 2006), and Volume 4 (2007 through 2009).

The honorees truly are the people you wish you had known.

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