Nearly 50 years ago, computer visionary Robert Taylor helped lay the foundations for what we know today as the internet.
Taylor, who had Parkinson’s disease, died Thursday at his home in Woodside, Calif., his son Kurt Taylor tells NPR.
Like many of his peers who helped build the internet, Bob Taylor, as he was known, wasn’t a computer scientist. The University of Texas at Austin graduate had a background in psychology and mathematics. Taylor was inspired by the idea of expanding human interaction using computer technology, Guy Raz noted in an interview profiling Taylor in 2009.
In the 1960s, Taylor was a researcher at the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA, where his frustration with what he saw as inefficient communication led him to envision an interconnected computer network.
At ARPA, Taylor had three separate computer terminals in his office to communicate with his colleagues across Berkeley, MIT, UCLA and Stanford. Each terminal connected to a different computer in a different part of the country, he told Raz.
“To get in touch with someone in Santa Monica through the computer, I’d sit in front of one terminal, but to do the same thing with someone in Massachusetts, I would have to get up and move over to another terminal,” Taylor said. “You don’t have to look at this very long to realize this is silly. This is stupid. So I decided, OK, I want to build a network that connects all of these.”
That shared network, ARPANET, evolved into what would become the internet. To build it, Taylor assembled a group of smart people, like Bill Duvall at Stanford, Len Kleinrock at UCLA and the 21-year-old programmer Charley Kline.
After many a trial and error, it was Kline, on the night of Oct. 29, 1969, who sent an electronic message from a computer the size of a one-bedroom apartment to another computer at the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, with Duvall was on the receiving end.
The first communication over a shared computer network was — well, it was supposed to be the word “login.” Instead, Kline only typed the first two letters before a bug crashed his computer. “Lo,” therefore, became the first utterance transmitted by the revolutionary communication.
“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,” Leslie Berlin, a historian at the Stanford University Silicon Valley Archives project, told The New York Times.
But Taylor was unconcerned with getting that kind of recognition. In fact, in 1999, when President Clinton awarded him the National Medal of Technology, Guy Raz says, Taylor didn’t even bother to fly to Washington to accept it.
Taylor went on to create personal workstations with displays that incorporated icons instead of typed commands, NPR’s Wade Goodwyn tells our newscast, the graphic template for the Apple Macintosh and Microsoft Windows.
In addition to Kurt, Taylor is survived by his two other sons, Erik and Derek, and three grandchildren.