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The Guy Who Invented the Password Did It Out of Need, Not Security

Fernando Corbato

A few years ago, a gentleman named Fernando Corbato, who’d spend his entire career working for the Massachusetts Institute, passed away at the age of 93.  Although it didn’t make headlines or front-page news, it was significant, nonetheless.

Because you use something that he invented quite likely every day of your online life.

You see, Mr. Corbato is the one who invented the password. 


Managing these access codes has evolved over time. From scribbling on scraps of paper to selecting from among the best password manager software on the market. The idea of passwords today is so common that it seems incredible that anyone would have to invent it. 

But every technology has to start somewhere and the humble password, now used for everything from your email account to cloud security, started at MIT in the 1950s.

Dr. Corbato spent his entire career at MIT. He originally joined the physics department to study for a doctorate in condensed matter physics, but (luckily for the world) soon got distracted by the machines he was using to perform his calculations.

But before the password was invented…

As the story goes, the faculty at MIT was already using computers by 1950, but they were labor-intensive devices. This was partly because the monolithic machines could only work on one problem at a time. This meant that there was always a huge queue of jobs waiting to be processed, and a lot of processing time was lost.

Dr. Corbato came up with the idea to develop an operating system called the Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS). This allowed large processing tasks to be broken into smaller components, and for the computer to give small slices of time to each task. 

Dr. Corbato figured that none of the researchers would actually realize that they were only using a portion of the available processing time. He was right. 

CTSS did create a problem, though. With multiple users sharing one computer, files had to be assigned to individual researchers, and available only to them. Dr. Corbato needed a way to figure out a solution for that challenge. 

That’s when Dr. Corbato invented the password system. 

The password arrives! 

The idea of the password wasn’t new to the world. There was a time when you couldn’t get into a club or secret gambling joint with knowing a password. If you knew the password, the bouncer would let you in.  

But the idea as new to business. 

In MIT’s case. Dr. Corbato gave every user a unique name and password, (and only them) access their files stored in the database.

Groundbreaking? May not. A quote from Dr. Corbat in 2012 made it seem like no big deal. He said,

Putting a password on for each individual user as a lock seemed like a very straightforward solution.

The Rise of the Password

The influence of Corbato’s work was such that the password system was quickly adopted in almost every field of computer design. When the Internet was first invented at CERN, for instance, it seemed completely natural to use passwords to grant researchers access to computing resources. After the development of the PC in the 1980s, the password became an important part of business life, and eventually everyday life.

Lately, though, some are questioning whether the password is really the best way of protecting personal data in our interconnected world. Though the concept itself is sound, there is a huge problem with the way that we use it: too many people use simple, short passwords that are easy to guess. Initiatives such as World Password Day (which is on the first Thursday of May) have sought to raise awareness of this, but the problem remains. 

Are Passwords Going to Obsolete?

These problems have led to the development of systems that don’t rely on passwords in order to secure user data. Fingerprint, face recognition and other biometrics are slowly becoming common, even in consumer devices. But the truth is that the password is not likely to disappear any time soon.

Facial Recognition System concept.

The reason is simple: advanced technologies like face and fingerprint recognition are currently too expensive to implement on everyday systems and come with their own host of issues, too. Though certain high-value systems (like Internet banking or corporate intranets) have not relied on passwords for years, it’s unlikely that you’ll need a fingerprint to log into your accounts for a long time.

Until them, you’ll want to check regularly for breaches—to see if any you have online accounts with companies that have been hacked. But more importantly, you’ll want to know if your passwords might have been stolen. 

What the investor of the password couldn’t envision.

One of the biggest problems with people and their passwords is that they use the same one for, say, their Pinterest account and their Internet banking. That’s a really bad idea because if one is hacked the other will be compromised as well.

So, while we’ll have to accept that passwords will still be with us for a while, we can also improve the way we work with them thanks to password management software innovations.

The aforementioned password managers help you generate long, secure, unique passwords for every site (and account) you have and keep track of all of them for you. There are many password managers that can help you create secure passwords for each account. 

Whatever your needs, be sure to review each password manager’s features to choose the best one for your situation.

We have a more information on about password managers. 

The best password is a long one.

Although the password has helped to keep all of our IT systems secure over that time, it’s now such a common feature of everyday life that we forget how important passwords are in keeping us safe online

It can sometimes feel like we need a password for everything, and that’s why we sometimes get lazy, and use short passwords, or re-use the same password for multiple systems. 

Dr. Corbato’s invention has been the most reliable way to keep data safe since the 1950s, and will no doubt form the basis for whatever comes next.

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