Fernando Corbató, a pioneering computer scientist, died at age 93 on Friday of complications from diabetes.
Mr. Corbató is the first computer scientist to password-protect user accounts while working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the 1960s.
He also opened the door to personal computers by developing time-sharing, a technique that distributes the computing power of a computer across multiple user accounts.
At that time, computers – huge machines usually belonging to universities – could only handle one set of calculations at a time. This means that users have to wait for the previous user’s operations to finish before they can submit theirs. For this reason, it was not uncommon to have to wait several hours or even days before getting the results.
By developing the time share, Mr. Corbató opened the way to personal computers, thus allowing several people to use a computer as if it belonged exclusively to him.
The beginning of computer interactivity
The secret behind this invention? The ability for the computer to jump from one task to another in a fluid way. In an interview given to the WGBH public television channel in 1963, the computer scientist compared the timeshare to a chess champion playing several games at the same time against different opponents. The chess champion (the computer) can move from one game to another (from one calculation to another), while all the opponents (the users) think about their next move.
In the same interview, he had indicated that the processing of batch calculations exasperated him. Mr. Corbató explained that the computers of the time were so expensive that the periods of inactivity between the batches of operations were a waste of money. His invention minimized idle time.
Timeshare was also revolutionary for another reason. By not having to wait for a user to finish entering all of their calculations to process those of others, the computer responded more quickly to everyone. It was the beginning of interactive computing.
“To this day, I still remember the reactions of people when they saw a demonstration:” Hey, [the computer] answers me. Wow! You just typed this and you got an answer, “Corbató recalled in a 1989 interview with the Charles Babbage Institute at the University of Minnesota, according to the New York Times.
From one invention to another
It was the creation of timeshare that motivated the invention of the password by Fernando Corbató. Indeed, since several people at once could use the same computer, they had to find a way to protect their files from prying eyes.
“Create a password for each individual as a padlock seemed like a simple solution,” indicated the computer magazine Wired in 2012.
These passwords are considered some of the first computer security systems in history.
Fernando Corbató’s Background
Fernando Corbató was born July 1, 1926 in California. In 1943, he enrolled at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), shortly before joining the United States Navy, then engaged in the Second World War. It was during his service with the Navy as an electronic technician that he discovered a passion for computer and electronic systems.
In 1950, he completed a Bachelor of Physics at the California Institute of Technology, and then joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for graduate studies. In the context of his doctorate in molecular physics, he was often called upon to use one of MIT’s computers.
“It was a very hard work and, in retrospect, rather boring,” he said in an interview for the Mountain View Computer History Museum in 2006, reports the New York Times. . “I ended up getting more interested [in the computer] than in mathematical problems. ”
Fernando Corbató won the prestigious Turing Prize in 1990, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in Computer Science.