Robert Taylor, innovator who shaped modern computing, dies at 85

“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, California,” John Markoff reports for The New York Times. “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,” Markoff reports. “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.”

“His idea led to the Arpanet, the forerunner of the internet,” Markoff reports. “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,” Markoff reports. “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. Taylor’s team built a prototype personal computer called the Alto, and another group, led by Alan Kay, added a software system that pioneered the so-called desktop metaphor, in which documents are represented by graphical icons on the computer display,” Markoff reports. “It was Steve Jobs, however, who profited the most when Xerox management allowed him to visit with Mr. Taylor’s group at the Palo Alto center. Mr. Jobs, drawing on ideas he encountered there, went on to be the first to successfully market the new style of computing.”

Read more in the full article here.

MacDailyNews Take: Wow, what a life! Mr. Taylor was indeed a pioneer and a visionary who we all – especially us Mac users – owe a great debt of gratitude!

R.I.P., Mr. Taylor.

Steve Jobs, Apple co-founder, dead at 56 – October 5, 2011
Apple to mouse: ‘We brought you into this world, and we can take you out’ – June 25, 2008
Ars Technica: Apple Computer ‘the most important of the graphical user interface pioneers’ – May 5, 2005


  1. This man was fitting of a bronze statue, to be remembered by. It would be cool to make one and place it in the central area of the spaceship campus, along with one of Steve.

    1. Agree, along with statues of Lynn Conway and Ada Lovelace. Throw in Alan Turing and John von Neumann. Make an honest effort to honour people who figured stuff out, as well as people who figured out how to make it pay.

  2. “I’ll tell you an interesting story, it’s a real gem. I had three or four people that kept bugging me that I ought to get my rear over to Xerox PARC [Palo Alto Research Center], they kept saying, “You really need to go over to Xerox PARC and see what they’ve got going over there.” So I finally did.
    Xerox PARC was a research lab set up by Xerox when they were making a lot of profits in the copier days. They were doing some computer science research which was basically an extension of some stuff started by a guy named Doug Engelbart when he was at SRI [Stanford Research Institute]. Doug had invented the mouse, and invented the bitmap display. And some Xerox folks that Xerox I believe hired away from Doug or split off from Doug somehow and got to Xerox, were continuing along in this vain.
    I first went over there in 1979, it was a very important visit. I saw their early computer called the Alto, which was a phenomenal computer. The Alto had the world’s first graphical user interface. It had windows. It had a crude menu system. It had crude panels and stuff. It had the mouse and the multiple-font text on the screen. It didn’t work right but it basically was all there.
    I remember being shown their rudimentary graphical user interface, and within 10 minutes, it was obvious that every computer in the world would work this way someday. It was one of those sort of apocalyptic moments. It was as if, all of a sudden, the veil had been lifted from my eyes. I thought it was the best thing I had ever seen in my life. You could argue about the number of years it would take, and you could argue about who the winners and the losers in terms of companies in the industry might be, but I don’t think rational people could argue that every computer would work this way someday; it was so obvious once you saw it. You knew it with every bone in your body. It didn’t require tremendous intellect. It was so clear. You would’ve felt the same way if you would have been there.”

    Excerpt from: “Steve Jobs: The Unauthorized Autobiography”

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