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Computer Password Inventor Fernando Corbato Dies Aged 93

Dominique Adams

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Computer security pioneer Fernando Corbato, who is responsible for several advances in computer science, has passed away. 

Fernando CorbatoComputer scientist Fernando Corbato, who is attributed with inventing the first computer password has died at the age of 93 – reportedly of diabetes-related complications. Corbato’s work on computer time-sharing in the 1960s helped pave the way for the modern personal computer. He is also responsible for advancing and shaping the digital security landscape.

Working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he remained for the entirety of his career, Corbato came up with the concept of password protection while creating his Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS), which enables multiple people to use a computer simultaneously.

In a 2014 interview with the Wall Street Journal, he said it was simply a matter of establishing “compartmentalisation” and basic privacy. His efforts ultimately influenced the future trajectory of computing and contributed greatly to the advancement of computer science.

Originally, Corbato had joined MIT in 1950 to gain a doctorate in physics, however, he soon discovered his real interest was in the machines physicists used to perform calculations. Computers in the 50s could only handle one process at the time, making computing very slow.

To address this he developed his CTSS, which meant more than one person could use a computer at once by dividing up its processing power so it could process smaller tasks for more people, thus significantly boosting computing speed.

Passwords were a necessity for CTSS to work, users needed a way to conceal their work from others using the same machine. “Putting a password on for each individual user as a lock seemed like a very straightforward solution,” he told WIRED in 2012.

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Corbato’s CTSS  was the progenitor for many of the systems we know today, it was the direct forerunner of another time-sharing system called Multics, which led to the creation of the Linux system and helped to shape many other aspects of modern computing.

He is also responsible for “Corbato’s Law”, which states “the number of line of code a programmer can write in a fixed period of time is the same, independent of the language used.” This concept helped make the case for using higher-level languages rather than a close-to-the-metal language that is typically more time-intensive.

In 1990, for his groundbreaking work on time-sharing systems, Corbato received the AM Turing Award, considered to be one of the highest honours given to computer scientists. Then in 2012, he was made a Fellow of the Computer History Museum in recognition of his contribution to computer science.

Prof Fadel Adib, from the Media Lab at MIT, paid tribute, saying: “Our world would be very different without his research and that of his descendants. He inspires in his work and his legacy.”

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Dominique Adams

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