Computer pioneer Fernando Corbato, who first used passwords to safeguard user accounts, has died aged 93.

Dr Corbato introduced the fundamental security measure while developing ways that permit more people to use a computer at the same time. He developed a method, known as time-sharing that divided the processing power of a computer so it might serve more than one person at once.

Dr Corbato reportedly died as a result of complications caused by diabetes.

Small slices

The work on sharing a computer was done at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where Dr Corbato spent his entire career.

He joined Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1950 to study for a doctorate in physics, however, realized during those years that he was more curious about the machines that physicists used to do their calculations than in the subject itself. Using computers during the 50s was an exercise in frustration because the massive, monolithic machines might only handle one process job at a time.

In a bid to beat this limitation, Dr Corbato developed an OS for computers known as the Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS). Rather than have the machine dedicated to one person, CTSS distributed the processing power of a computer into small slices so it might do little bits of work for a lot of people.

Listen: Hacking the first computer password

Even in the 50s and 60s computers were so quick that no user noticed they were only obtaining a small portion of a machine’s processing power at any one time.

The development of CTSS LED to a different time-sharing programme known as Multics that was the forerunner of the Linux OS and lots of other aspects of the latest computing. Passwords were introduced to CTSS as a way for users to cover away from the files and programs they were acting on from others on the same machine.

“Putting a password on for every individual user as a lock sounded like a really simple resolution,” Dr Corbato told Wired in 2012. In 1990, Dr Corbato received the AM Turing Award – one amongst the best honours given to computer scientists – for his pioneering work on time-sharing systems.

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


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