In 1968, Robert W. Taylor made a prediction that would guide the course of computer science for decades to come.
"In a few years," he wrote, "men will be able to communicate more effectively through a machine than face to face."
Taylor, who died Thursday at age 85, became the single most important force in making his own vision come true. As a civilian official at the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency in the 1960s, he approved the funding to launch the government computer network that would ultimately evolve into the internet.
And as one of the original laboratory chiefs at the fabled Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, or PARC, he supervised the work that produced the first personal computer; the graphical user interface that was the model for Microsoft Windows and the Apple MacIntosh display; the laser printer; the ethernet local network, and many more advances.
Taylor, who suffered from Parkinson's disease and other ailments, died at his home in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Taylor may have been little known to the general public, but he was a revered figure among computer scientists and designers — many of whom received their earliest funding or developed their pioneering concepts with his help. Taylor's lab at PARC spawned companies and concepts that would help to place California's Silicon Valley at the center of the digital business world.
"From the early 1960s, Bob always had a very clear vision of the potential of the computer at a time when very few other people had really grasped it," recalled Butler Lampson, one of the designers of the Alto, PARC's groundbreaking personal computer.
Born in 1932 in Dallas, Taylor never lost the West Texas twang he acquired during his Depression-era upbringing. He earned a master's degree in psychology at the University of Texas and eventually joined the Pentagon as a research official.
His superior, psychologist J.C.R. Licklider, was devoted to "finding ways to make computers easier to use" — and especially making them interactive, Taylor recollected years later. At that time, computers were room-size monstrosities that operated on the "batch" principle. A user would write an entire program on punch cards or spools of punched tape, feed it into the machine, wait for it to be processed, and then correct or rewrite it and feed it all back in. "It was an unbelievable rigamarole," Taylor recalled.
"You don't have to be half-smart to see that this thing ought to be designed such that you just have one terminal and you can go wherever you want to go," Taylor explained many years later. In 1966, he proposed such a system to ARPA's chief, Charles Herzfeld, who saw the point immediately and approved the "million dollars or so" Taylor told him he needed to get the project off the ground.
Lacking formal training in computer science or engineering, Taylor created the environment for his scientists — typically willful, intellectually self-confident and self-absorbed — to do their work. It may have been his greatest accomplishment.