Fernando Corbató, father of the computer password, has died

15 Jul 2019

Still from ‘Fernando J (Corby) Corbató, 1990 ACM Turing Award Recipient’. Image: Association for Computing Machinery (ACM)/YouTube

One of the pioneers of infosec and the father of the computer password, Fernando ‘Corby’ Corbató, has died at the age of 93.

Decades before the existence of concepts such as cybersecurity and the cloud, Fernando ‘Corby’ Corbató led the development of one of the world’s first computer operating systems: Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS). This allowed multiple people to use a computer at the same time to significantly increase the speed, and is widely credited as the first system to use passwords.

Now, MIT – where much of this work was undertaken – has announced that Corbató has died at the age of 93.

“Corby was one of the most important researchers for making computing available to many people for many purposes,” said longtime colleague Tom Van Vleck. “He saw that these concepts don’t just make things more efficient, they fundamentally change the way people use information.”

Born in Oakland, California in 1926, Corbató enlisted in the US Navy during World War II at the age of 17 where he developed his engineering skills working on a range of radar and sonar systems. After the war, he earned a bachelor’s degree at the California Institute of Technology before heading to MIT to do a PhD in physics.

Black and white image of Fernando Carbató standing beside a number of old computers in a lab.

Fernando Corbató surrounded by computers in 1965. Image: MIT CSAIL

He ‘transformed computers as we know them today’

Before the introduction of CTSS – first demonstrated in 1961 – computer users would have to create programs on cards and submit them in batches to an operator who would have to enter them into a system. This process would often take hours, and if a minor error was left in the code the entire sequence would have to be repeated.

However, when CTSS was introduced, answers could be returned in a matter of seconds and helped open up communication between users with early versions of email, instant messaging and word processing.

Aside from significantly improving computer efficiency, the operating system also helped establish the very notion of computer privacy.

With different users wanting to keep their own files private, CTSS introduced the idea of having people create individual accounts with personal passwords. Another legacy of the man was something referred to as Corbató’s law, which states that the number of lines of code someone can write in a day is the same regardless of the language used.

Daniela Rus, director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), which Corbató helped develop, said: “It’s no overstatement to say that Corby’s work on time-sharing fundamentally transformed computers as we know them today.

“From PCs to smartphones, the digital revolution can directly trace its roots back to the work that he led at MIT nearly 60 years ago.”

Updated, 3.04pm, 15 July 2019: This article was amended to clarify that Fernando Corbató was born in 1926, not 1927.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic