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A great advance in computing lead to the bane of our existence

Fernando Corbato (yeah, I’ve never heard of him either) passed away recently at the age of 93. Fernando was instrumental in modernizing computing. You see, back in the day, even before I started getting interested in computers, people didn’t have a machine on their desks, much less in their pockets. They probably didn’t have a computer anywhere in the office. If a company had one at all it was down in the basement manned by some white shirted guy with a black skinny tie, glasses, and a pocket protector. Programs were recorded on punch cards, written line by line by keypunch clerks and stacked in a certain order. They were delivered to the programmer who would run that program after the others in front of it had finished. I know that sounds like the Flintstones, but like today, that was the most advanced system people had.

Keypunch clerks

Then along came Fernando (“Corby” as he was called). In 1961 Corby, a professor at MIT demonstrated a Compatible Time Sharing System (CTSS) which enabled a computer to be accessed by more than one person at a time. Programs could be stored on tape, and one person could be debugging a program while another was executing theirs. This is something we all take for granted these days. This also meant that a computer could be accessed via a teletype style terminal from another part of the building, or like in the case of the terminal in my high school, from across town. All was good.

Computer with tape storage
Terminal with modem

So what is the issue? What did Corby do that causes us so much pain these days? Well, in order for a computer to be accessed by multiple people at the same time, the machine needed to know who was who. And also one person’s program needed to be protected from other people lest they get in there and mess something up. So Fernando “Corby” Corbato invented the login and password. (Boo, hiss). Yep, the fact that we have to rely on a password manager (or a slew of sticky notes on the desk) in order for us to be able to keep up with how we log in where we can all blame on Corby. Thanks, dude.

Corby at his machine. Click for story from Engadget


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