Fernando Corbató, a Father of Your Computer (and Your Password), Dies at 93

By Katie Hafner, The New York Times

Fernando Corbató, whose work on computer time-sharing in the 1960s helped pave the way for the personal computer, as well as the computer password, died on Friday at a nursing home in Newburyport, Mass. He was 93.  His wife, Emily Corbató, said the cause was complications of diabetes. At his death he was a professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Fernando Corbató received the A.M. Turing Award in 1990. Corbató spent his entire career at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and oversaw a 1960s-era project called the Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS) that allowed multiple users in different locations to access a single computer simultaneously through telephone lines.

At the time, computing was done in large batches, and users typically had to wait until the next day to get the results of a computation. In a 1963 public television interview, Dr. Corbató described batch processing as “infuriating” for its inefficiency. The advent of time-sharing, however, reinforced the notion, still in its infancy, that computers could be used interactively. It was an idea that would animate the computing field for decades.

The advent of time-sharing reinforced the revolutionary idea that computers could be used interactively. CTSS gave rise to a successor project called Multics (also led by Corbató), which inspired a team of researchers at Bell Labs to create Unix, a computer operating system that was adopted widely in the 1980s and 1990s. Corbató also came up with the idea for the computer password. CTSS passwords are widely considered to be among the earliest computer security mechanisms. Read full article

DCL: I was a graduate student at MIT in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.  While working for John McCarthy I was tasked with setting up the first LISP time sharing system. This was all new to me. What I did was to take the time sharing code written by Corbato and Marge Merwin, which was beautifully written and read like a book. I simply wrote an interface that allowed it to multi-task  the LISP system with any other program. That time-shared LISP system was demonstrated to a summer meeting of the American Mathematical Society.  I forget the year, but it was probably 1959 or 1960.

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