You’ve Never Heard of Tech Legend Bob Taylor, But He Invented ‘Almost Everything’

This post is an excerpt of an article originally authored by Leslie Berlin for Wired appearing April 21, 2017. Berlin will be our featured PARC Forum speaker, together with Chuck Geschke, co-founder of Adobe and former PARC principal scientist, at PARC’s Pake Auditorium Nov. 30 in Palo Alto. This event is free for the public and you can register here.

Last week the world lost the most important tech pioneer whom hardly anyone has heard of: Bob Taylor. When I asked Alphabet executive chairman Eric Schmidt to tell me about Taylor—Schmidt worked in Taylor’s Silicon Valley computer science lab as a graduate student—Schmidt said, “Bob Taylor invented almost everything in one form or another that we use today in the office and at home.”

In 1961, as a project manager at NASA, Taylor directed funding to computer scientist Douglas Engelbart, who used the money, in part, to invent the computer mouse. Five years later, at Arpa (now Darpa), Taylor kick-started the internet when he convinced his boss to invest $500,000 of taxpayer money to build a computer network. That network was the Arpanet, precursor to the internet. In 1972, Taylor midwifed the birth of the modern personal computer at Xerox PARC.

But just as important as these innovations: Taylor built one of the greatest teams in the history of high-technology and kept it together for years. Heroic lone-wolf entrepreneurs may be the preferred heroes of narratives spun by the media, but history has shown us that teams—and the networks that come from them—are the true engines behind innovation in Silicon Valley and far beyond. No one understood this better than Bob Taylor.

In every generation of Silicon Valley’s young but influential history, an essential cluster of top minds has made a mark as a team, and then team members have gone on individually to create new and important companies or ideas. Perhaps the best known modern example is the so-called PayPal mafia: the employees who built PayPal and then went on to launch or lead a host of companies, including Tesla and SpaceX (Elon Musk), LinkedIn (Reid Hoffman), Yelp (Jeremy Stoppelman and Russel Simmons), Clarium Capital (Peter Thiel), and Yammer (David Sacks).

But before PayPal, there was Sun Microsystems, a computer hardware and software company whose Java programming language still runs beneath millions of websites and applications—and whose alumni include the former CEOs of Google, Yahoo, and Motorola. In the 1960s, the power cluster of its day was Fairchild Semiconductor, the first successful silicon company in the valley that would soon be named for this emerging industry. The eight-man founding team alone included Robert Noyce, co-inventor of the microchip; Gordon Moore, of Moore’s Law fame; and Eugene Kleiner, co-founder of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, one of today’s most legendary venture capital firms. Dozens of companies were founded by Fairchild alumni, among them Intel, National Semiconductor, and AMD.

For the generation of tech companies in the 1970s and early 1980s, the essential cluster was at Xerox PARC—and its leader was Bob Taylor. Taylor’s lab was of such high caliber that at the time Stanford professor Donald Knuth called it “the greatest by far team of computer scientists ever assembled in one organization.” Taylor’s Computer Science Laboratory, working with its sister Systems Science Laboratory, pioneered or perfected many of the innovations we associate with modern computing: the graphical user interface, icons, pop-up menus, cut-and-paste techniques, overlapping windows, bitmap displays, easy-to-use word processing programs, and Ethernet networking technologies, among others. When Steve Jobs famously visited Xerox PARC in 1979, these were the innovations he witnessed with awe and later incorporated into the Lisa and Macintosh computers.

If Taylor was the coach, innovation was the team sport that he infused with passion and drama to inspire everyone who worked with him. “When a really difficult thing is being worked on and you get synergy from the small team in just the right way, you can’t describe it. It’s like love. It is love,” says Alan Kay, a visionary computer scientist who worked with Taylor at Xerox PARC before moving on to Apple and Atari. “You’re trying to nurture this thing that is not alive into being alive.” Taylor’s alumni—like alumni from every important Silicon Valley cluster—pursued this same thrill at new endeavors. When Taylor was pushed out of PARC in 1983, 15 of his top researchers went with him to found the Palo Alto-based Systems Research Center at Digital Equipment Corporation. Another great team was formed.

For the past several years, Taylor celebrated summer’s bounty with a tomato and oyster fest in the back yard of his modest home in the hills overlooking Silicon Valley. It was here that the reach of his influence was most evident. Standing around the picnic tables nursing beers might be senior scientists at Google, leading researchers at Microsoft, a few winners of the Turing Award (commonly known as the Nobel Prize of computer science), or top computer scientists from the world’s finest research institutions.

In the last email Taylor sent, addressed to his friends and colleagues, he spoke of having had a “ringside seat” as his teams changed the world. “You did what they said could not be done, you created things that they could not see or imagine,” he wrote. Taylor had long pushed for an award to honor group creativity, explaining that he did not think most innovations could be traced to a single individual. He liked to quote a Japanese proverb: “None of us is as smart as all of us.” It is a fitting epitaph for Taylor and a message for innovators everywhere.

Leslie Berlin is project historian for the Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford University and author of the forthcoming book Troublemakers: How Silicon Valley Came of Age. You can follow Leslie Berlin on Twitter at @leslieBerlinSV.

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