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Robert Taylor Found a Way to Nurture Computer Visionaries

Robert Taylor nurtured researchers who created the forerunners of today’s internet and easy-to-use computers.

Mr. Taylor, who led research teams at the Pentagon and a Xerox Corp. lab from the 1960s to the early 1980s, had a talent for finding brilliant people and coaxing them to cooperate. He said it was a mistake to hire people who were merely good at their jobs; it would take 10 or 20 good people, he argued, to match the contribution of a single great one. While giving researchers room to follow their own instincts, he insisted on what was then a radical vision: small, personal computers linked together to create communities.

Robert Taylor led research teams at the Pentagon and a Xerox lab from the 1960s and to the early 1980s. PHOTO: GARDNER CAMPBELL

“He knew where he wanted to go and found the people to figure out how to get there,” said Leslie Berlin, a historian whose book on Mr. Taylor and other Silicon Valley pioneers is due to be published in November.

 

Mr. Taylor, who had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease, died April 13 at his home in Woodside, Calif. He was 85.

The adopted son of a Methodist minister, Mr. Taylor seemed an unlikely candidate to revolutionize computing. His training was in experimental psychology, not computer engineering. Yet he had a missionary zeal, along with a sympathy for brainy people who couldn’t bear a corporate environment.

When hiring, he encouraged as many of his underlings as possible to meet and size up job candidates. That took up lots of time, but new hires were more likely to succeed if their colleagues had endorsed them.

Once a week at the Xerox lab, he gathered researchers in a conference room furnished with beanbag chairs to discuss their work. He encouraged them to challenge one another but required that they also made an effort to understand and acknowledge opposing viewpoints. People were free to try risky technological leaps, work odd hours or ride bicycles down the hallways.

Alan Kay, a computer visionary who worked with Mr. Taylor at the Xerox research center, said he and other members of his “lunatic fringe” group thrived in the absence of structure. “Any other place I would have been shot down in flames,” Mr. Kay said.

Robert William Taylor was born Feb. 10, 1932, in Dallas. His adoptive father, who had studied at Yale University, was bookish and introduced Methodists in southwestern Texas to existentialism in the late 1940s, Mr. Taylor recalled in an oral history recorded by the Computer History Museum. After serving in the Navy during the Korean War, Mr. Taylor studied at the University of Texas at Austin and earned a master’s degree in psychology.

While doing his graduate-school research, he was introduced to 1950s computers. “You had to punch holes in paper cards or tapes, give the paper to someone who fed it to the machine, and then go away for hours or days,” he wrote later. That struck him as ridiculous, so he worked with a calculator instead.

He saw a very different future of personal computing after reading a 1960 paper called “Man-Computer Symbiosis” by J.C.R. Licklider, who envisioned “men and computers working together in intimate association.” The two men became friends and in 1968 wrote a paper, "The Computer as a Communication Device," anticipating online communities, among other things. “Life will be happier for the on-line individual because the people with whom one interacts most strongly will be selected more by commonality of interests and goals than by accidents of proximity,” they predicted.

As a project manager at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the early 1960s, he helped channel funding to Douglas Engelbart, an engineer who would later demonstrate such marvels as the computer mouse.

In the mid-1960s, working at the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA, Mr. Taylor saw a need for stringing computers at different institutions together into an information-sharing network. His boss, Charles Herzfeld, quickly gave him $1 million of funding to pursue that goal, leading to the creation of ARPAnet, an early version of the internet.

Xerox opened its Palo Alto Research Center, known as PARC, in 1970, and hired Mr. Taylor to help run it. His band of merry misfits, drawing on their own ideas and many other sources, developed graphical displays to replace the confusing codes needed to operate earlier computers. They produced Ethernet networking technology and laser printers. The lab’s experimental Alto personal computers helped inspire Steve Jobs and others to create the desktop models that began to go mainstream in the early 1980s.

Xerox wasn’t sure what to do with all this technology, leaving others to reap many of the benefits. Mr. Taylor eventually clashed with his superiors and left the company in the early 1980s. He later headed a lab for Digital Equipment Corp.

Mr. Taylor said he didn’t mind that his work hadn’t made him fabulously rich. “I was able to pick and choose who I worked with for close to 40 years,” he said in an interview with the San Jose Mercury News in 2000. “Who else can say that? That’s the kind of life I had. I deliberately avoided the business world, because frankly I didn’t want to work with the idiots you have to work with in order to build a successful company.”

He is survived by three sons and three grandchildren. His marriage to Joanne Honnold ended in divorce.