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RIP Bob Taylor: Internet, desktop PC pioneer powers down at 85

Ex-NASA manager oversaw tech that grew into today's web, OSes

By Iain Thomson, 17 Apr 2017

Obit Robert Taylor, who oversaw the creation of the internet's precursor ARPANET, the computer mouse and the first GUI-based personal computer, has died after a long illness. He was 85.

For over 50 years, Bob Taylor was at the forefront of research into computing. He had a hand in many of the technologies we take for granted today, and it's his role in the birth of the internet that brought him lasting fame in the industry.

Taylor was born on February 10, 1932, in Dallas, Texas, and was adopted by a traveling Yale-educated reverend and his wife. In his early years Taylor's schooling was sporadic, and while at university in Texas he pursued many interests, eventually ending up with a major in experimental psychology and minors in mathematics, philosophy, English and religion.

Psychology didn't pay the bills for his family, so Taylor moved into engineering in the 1950s, helping build nuclear missiles, which led to a job at NASA. In 1961, while a program manager at the US space agency, he helped fund Douglas Engelbart's work at the Stanford Research Institute, which led to the invention of the first computer mouse.

It was in his role at the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency in the latter half of the 1960s that Taylor had arguably his greatest impact. He grew frustrated that none of the computers run by ARPA could connect together across the country, and in 1966 he commissioned and helped develop a network to do just that.

ARPANET took roughly three years of planning and funding wrangles before getting off the ground. Back then was just a very limited packet-switching network, however it provided the backbone for the modern internet and the subsequent development of the World Wide Web.

Contrary to popular belief, ARPANET was not designed as a distributed network that could survive a nuclear war. Taylor once told your humble Reg hack defense top-brass knew that the second the bombs started going off, the electro-magnetic pulses would knock everything offline. But it was a good line to feed to US Congress in the fight to get funding.

He continued to work for ARPA, including a stint in Vietnam with the US Army setting up computer networks in Saigon. He also wrote a paper [PDF] in 1968 titled "The Computer as a Communication Device,” with top computer scientist J.C.R. Licklider: it was a blueprint for today's computer networks.

With ARPANET up and running, Taylor wanted another challenge. So in 1970 he left and went to work at the famed Xerox PARC braintrust, which has since proved pivotal to the development of today's technologies – such as networking, laser printers, and the graphical user interface.

Taylor pioneered an informal style of meetings at PARC, usually in circles of beanbags and comfy seats, which large chunks of Silicon Valley have since copied. While at PARC he led the team that, in 1972, built the Alto, the first computer built around a proper desktop GUI. It was this computer that, in 1979, inspired Steve Jobs to commission a mouse-driven graphical operating system for the Apple Lisa, just like PARC's design.

Jobs being Jobs, he went ballistic at Microsoft a few years later for building a rival GUI system called Windows. This led to an infamous face off between Jobs and Bill Gates that has since entered Silicon Valley lore.

"You're ripping us off!" Steve apparently yelled at Bill in a meeting.

"Well, Steve, I think there's more than one way of looking at it. I think it's more like we both had this rich neighbor named Xerox and I broke into his house to steal the TV set and found out that you had already stolen it," Gates is reputed to have shot back.

Had Xerox actually taken more of PARC's creations to market, the photocopier giant would not be in the mess it's in today. Xerox's lack of courage at the time was immensely frustrating for Taylor. After years of trying to get management to see what they had, Taylor left and went to work for Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). There, in 1983, he set up the Systems Research Center that later cranked out the world's first multi-threaded Unix system and the early web search engine, Alta Vista.

In later years, Taylor's pivotal role in the technology industry was recognized with honors and awards, but he wasn't very impressed. When President Clinton awarded him a National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 1999 he didn't even bother flying to Washington, DC to pick it up.

Taylor retired in 1996 although kept his hand in working on new networking challenges with a variety of employers before ill heath took its toll. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and died on Thursday at his home in Woodside, California.

He is survived by three sons and three grandchildren. ®

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