Robert Taylor

The ABC has shared news of Robert Taylor’s death.

Much of what we take for granted on the Internet today is connected with Robert and his colleagues’ work.

A citation for a Computer History Museum fellowship in 2013 notes:

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.

On his journey to that redefinition, Robert met and worked with, amongst others, Douglas Engelbart and JCR Licklider.

There is an excellent biographical article about Robert in his local newspaper. This was written in 2000, by Marion Softky.

I have compiled a Google Slide presentation to synthesise some of his life story.

I have spent some of the day reading the paper he published with Joseph Licklider in 1968, The Computer as a Communication Device.

The first paragraph of the paper is:

In a few years, men will be able to communicate more effectively through a machine than face to face. That is a rather startling thing to say, but it is our conclusion. As if in confirmation of it, we participated a few weeks ago in a technical meeting held through a computer. In two days, the group accomplished with the aid of a computer what normally might have taken a week. (1968:27)

I was fascinated by their discussion of on-line interactive communities:

In most fields they will consist of geographically separated members, sometimes grouped in small clusters and sometimes working individually. They will be communities not of common location, but of common interest. In each field, the overall community of interest will be large enough to support a comprehensive system of field-oriented programs and data. (1968:37ff) (Original emphasis)

They add:

You will not send a letter or a telegram; you will simply identify the people whose files should be linked to yours and the parts to which they should be linked-and perhaps specify a coefficient of urgency. You will seldom make a telephone call; you will ask the network to link your consoles together. (1968:38)

Their conclusion to the paper anticipated a digital divide debate that occupies us now:

For the society, the impact will be good or bad, depending mainly on the question: Will “to be on line” be a privilege or a right? If only a favored segment of the population gets a chance to enjoy the advantage of “intelligence amplification,” the network may exaggerate the discontinuity in the spectrum of intellectual opportunity. On the other hand, if the network idea should prove to do for education what a few have envisioned in hope, if not in concrete detailed plan, and if all minds should prove to be responsive, surely the boon to humankind would be beyond measure. (1968:40)

It would have been fascinating to be part of Robert, Douglas and Joseph’s conversations in the 1960s. Robert was the longest surviving of the three friends. He was 85 when he died on 13 April. Joseph died in 1990 and Douglas in 2013.

Vale Robert.

Photo Credit

Robert Taylor (Computer History Museum)

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