Robert William Taylor discovered computing while a graduate student in 1957 when he paid his first visit to The University of Texas computer center to process his thesis data. Taylor was dismayed to find that computers of the day were focused on arithmetic and business data processing. They were not interactive; they were clumsy to use, and were severely limited in their application. He soon chose to dedicate his career to re-defining computing with a focus on interactive communication, networking, and search technology.
As a NASA program manager in the early 1960s, Taylor became the first major funder of a project at the Stanford Research Institute led by Doug Engelbart (who would go on to become a Museum Fellow). Engelbart was interested in developing computing technology to assist humans in working together - not in arithmetic or business data processing. Later, when Taylor served as director of computer research at the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) at the Department of Defense, he would give further assistance to Engelbart.
Taylor served as director of the Information Processing Techniques Ofice at ARPA from 1965 to 1969. At that time, ARPA funded most of the nation's computer systems research. Taylor's ARPA work is best known for his initiation of the ARPAnet, for sponsoring the continued development of interactive computing, and for funding the research base that was necessary to the creation of the nation's first Ph.D. granting computer science departments.
In 1970, Taylor founded the Computer Science Laboratory (CSL) of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (Xerox PARC). Through the 1970s, CSL researchers became known worldwide for a number of important innovations necessary to the creation of the Internet. CSL invented and built Ethernet, the laser printer, and the PUP (PARC Universal Packet) protocol. PUP was introduced seven years in advance of the implementation of the Internet protocol, TCP/IP. Within Xerox, all of these technologies enabled the construction of the first internet.
CSL also designed and built the Alto, the first networked personal computer. It was the first to support a graphical user interface, complete with mouse and a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) word processor and which was the antecedent of Microsoft Word. The Alto also contained an early page description language, antecedent of Adobe's Postscript.
In the 1970s, a number of companies essential to the building of the Internet outside Xerox did not exist: Adobe, Apple, Cisco, Microsoft, Sun, and 3Com were among them. In the 1980s, the early products from all these new companies were based primarily on software and technology created in CSL. All of this work occurred during the period of 1970 to 1983 when Taylor led CSL.
In 1983, Taylor became founding director of Digital Equipment Corporation's System Research Center (DEC SRC) in Palo Alto, CA. SRC also became a world-class research center. It was best known for advancing distributed personal computing, high-performance/high-reliability local area networks, and search engine technology. The Alta Vista search engine, created two years before Google, was designed and built as a joint effort between DEC SRC and DEC WRL.
Taylor retired in 1996.
He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the National Medal of Technology in 1999: “for visionary leadership in the development of modern computing technology, including the initiation of the ARPAnet project - forerunner of today's internet - and advancing ground breaking achievements in the development of the personal computer, the graphical user interface and computer networks.”
And in 2004, he was given the highest award of the National Academy of Engineering, the Charles Stark Draper Prize, together with Museum Fellows Charles Thacker, Butler Lampson, and Alan Kay: “for the vision, conception, and development of the first practical networked personal computer”.
Taylor passed away on April 13, 2017.