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Fernando Corbato (1926–2019), inventor of the computer password

by Linnea Crowther

Fernando Corbato was a computer scientist who was a pioneer of time-sharing operating systems and introduced the first computer password as part of that work.

Fernando Corbato was a computer scientist who was a pioneer of time-sharing operating systems and introduced the first computer password as part of that work. A professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) from 1965 until his retirement, Corbato oversaw the early 1960s Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS). This project allowed multiple people to access a single computer at the same time, remotely via telephone lines. At a time when the internet was well in the future and computers were large, slow, and expensive to use, CTSS brought new efficiency to computing. Corbato, noting that anyone who was signed in could see what anyone else was working on, instituted password protection to ensure the security of users’ work. It was the first computer password system developed and a precursor to the collections of passwords today’s computer users maintain. Corbato was honored with the prestigious Turing Award in 1990 for his pioneering work.

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Died: July 12, 2019 (Who else died on July 12?)

Details of death: Died at a nursing home in Newburyport, Massachusetts of complications of diabetes at the age of 93.

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Military background: Corbato got on the track toward his future career while serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He was trained there as an electronics technician, tasked with maintaining and debugging equipment on the Navy’s ships. Corbato found that he loved tracking down and resolving errors, skills that would come in handy as he worked on the early computers of the 1950s and ‘60s. After the war, as he received advanced degrees in physics, he developed a deep interest in the computers he used to do his work, ultimately transitioning to specialize in them.

Corbato on passwords today: “Unfortunately it’s become kind of a nightmare with the World Wide Web. I don’t think anybody can possibly remember all the passwords that are issued or set up. Either you maintain a crib sheet, a mild no-no, or you use some sort of program as a password manager. …I have to confess, I used to use a crib sheet. I don’t think I’m guarding any great secrets.” —from a 2014 interview with the Wall Street Journal

What people said about him: “RIP Fernando Corbato, who nearly 60 years ago created a system that let 2+ people use a mainframe at the same time by using a thing called a ‘computer password.’ Here’s to you, Corby: ******” —MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab

“Computer security wouldn’t have been the same without Fernando Corbato, the inventor of the computer password. Keep his legacy alive by keeping your net banking/ATM passwords secure.” —IDFC First Bank

“Corby taught us to lay out the ideal system, see how to implement as much of that system as possible within the constraints, then update our notion of what the ideal was.” —Tom Van Vleck, Corbato’s former colleague

Full obituary: New York Times

Birthdate: July 1, 1926 (Who else was born on July 1st?)

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