Fernando Corbató, a scientist who fostered the digital revolution by developing shared computer operating systems and put his stamp on daily life by introducing the computer password, died July 12 at a nursing home in Newburyport, Massachusetts. He was 93.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was a professor emeritus, announced the death. The cause was complications from diabetes, said his daughter, Nancy Corbató.
Colleagues and historians of the computer world honored Corbató for work that drastically expanded the usefulness of the computer and put its benefits at the reach of all. But he also made his mark on the modern world by conceiving and applying the idea of controlling computer access by passwords. They have been credited with protecting privacy against malice and mischief, but the effort to create and recall them has also been a source of anxiety and frustration.
Passwords — words or phrases held in secret and known only to the select few — have been part of civilization since classical antiquity. They can be found in the Bible, in the rituals of fraternal groups, and in the lore of the Prohibition period when they provided those in the know with entry to speakeasies and access to forbidden alcohol.
But it appears likely that the indispensability of computers and computerized devices have created an unprecedented use and proliferation of the password. For Corbató, who was concerned about increasing access to computers while protecting individual privacy and data, passwords seemed a convenient solution.
“The key problem was that we were setting up multiple terminals which were to be used by multiple persons but with each person having his own private set of files,” he told Wired magazine. “Putting a password on for each individual user as a lock seemed like a very straightforward solution.”
As seen through a speech he gave on receiving the 1990 Turing award, Corbató was a wry and good-natured man. He titled his lecture “On Building Systems That Will Fail,” which would have seemed prescient to many users of the computers of that day.
In building what he called “ambitious systems,” those for which designers had high hopes, he said, the question for designers to ask was not what to do “IF something will go wrong,” but rather how to respond “when it will go wrong.”