COM­PUTER PI­O­NEER

Antelope Valley Press (Sunday) - - Front Page - By KATIE HAFNER New York Times News Ser­vice

Fer­nando Cor­bató, whose work on com­puter time-shar­ing in the 1960s helped pave the way for the per­sonal com­puter, as well as the com­puter pass­word, died Fri­day at a nurs­ing home.

Fer­nando Cor­bató, whose work on com­puter time-shar­ing in the 1960s helped pave the way for the per­sonal com­puter, as well as the com­puter pass­word, died Fri­day at a nurs­ing home in New­bury­port, Mas­sachusetts. He was 93.

His wife, Emily Cor­bató, said the cause was com­pli­ca­tions of di­a­betes. At his death he was a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy.

Cor­bató, who spent his en­tire ca­reer at MIT, over­saw a project in the early 1960s called the Com­pat­i­ble Time-Shar­ing Sys­tem, or CTSS, which al­lowed mul­ti­ple users in dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions to ac­cess a sin­gle com­puter si­mul­ta­ne­ously through tele­phone lines.

At the time, com­put­ing was done in large batches, and users typ­i­cally had to wait un­til the next day to get the re­sults of a com­pu­ta­tion.

In a 1963 pub­lic tele­vi­sion in­ter­view, Cor­bató de­scribed batch processing as “in­fu­ri­at­ing” for its in­ef­fi­ciency. The ad­vent of time-shar­ing, how­ever, re­in­forced the no­tion, still in its in­fancy, that com­put­ers could be used in­ter­ac­tively. It was an idea that would an­i­mate the com­put­ing field for decades.

“Long be­fore per­sonal com­put­ers made it pos­si­ble for each per­son to have a com­puter, time-shar­ing trans­formed the way peo­ple used com­put­ers,” said Stephen Crocker, a com­puter sci­en­tist and in­ter­net pi­o­neer who worked on time-shar­ing sys­tems.

Cor­bató ex­plained his time-shar­ing meth­ods in the 1963 in­ter­view, with the re­porter John Fitch, broad­cast as part of the WGBH se­ries “MIT Science Re­porter.” In place of an ac­tual bulky com­puter of the day, he used a mod­i­fied elec­tric typewriter mounted on a box of elec­tron­ics.

Com­put­ers, he said on the pro­gram, were so ex­pen­sive to use that any idle time was a huge waste. But with time-shar­ing, com­puter time was care­fully me­tered and wasted time all but elim­i­nated.

The com­puter could carry out only one op­er­a­tion at a time, by means of a su­per­vi­sor pro­gram. Yet it worked so quickly that it could skip from one job to an­other, with users never notic­ing any lag.

Each user “would be able to create and mod­ify and ex­e­cute pro­grams in­ter­ac­tively, as if he or she had sole con­trol of the com­puter,” science writer M. Mitchell Wal­drop wrote in “The Dream Ma­chine,” his 2001 book on the per­sonal com­put­ing visionary J.C.R. Lick­lider.

In the WGBH in­ter­view, Cor­bató likened the su­per­vi­sor pro­gram to a chess mas­ter play­ing against many op­po­nents at once, let­ting them pon­der their next moves while the mas­ter raced from board to board.

When Cor­bató was over­see­ing the CTSS project, com­put­ers were con­sid­ered lit­tle more than gi­ant cal­cu­la­tors. But when his team demon­strated the new sys­tem in late 1962, that view was be­gin­ning to change.

“To this day I can still re­mem­ber peo­ple only re­al­iz­ing when they saw a real demo: ‘ Hey, it talks back. Wow! You just type that and you got an answer,’” he said in a 1989 in­ter­view with the Charles Bab­bage In­sti­tute at the Univer­sity of Min­nesota, an ar­chive and re­search cen­ter spe­cial­iz­ing in in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy.

CTSS gave rise to a suc­ces­sor project called Mul­tics, which Cor­bató also led. He told the Bab­bage In­sti­tute, “Mul­tics started out as kind of a wish list of what we would like to see in a big com­puter sys­tem that might be made as a com­mer­cial model.”

Mul­tics was a col­lab­o­ra­tion among MIT, AT&T’s Bell Lab­o­ra­to­ries and Gen­eral Elec­tric. It failed as a com­mer­cial en­deavor, but it in­spired a team of com­puter sci­en­tists at Bell Labs to create Unix, a com­puter op­er­at­ing sys­tem that took root in the 1970s and was adopted widely in the ′80s and ′90s.

Fer­nando José Cor­bató was born on July 1, 1926, in Oak­land to Hermenegil­do and Char­lotte (Carella Jensen) Cor­bató. His fa­ther, a na­tive of Vil­lar­real, Spain, was a pro­fes­sor of Span­ish lit­er­a­ture. When he joined the fac­ulty of the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Los An­ge­les, in 1930, the fam­ily moved south.

Cor­bató is sur­vived by his sec­ond wife, Emily (Gluck) Cor­bató; two daugh­ters from his first mar­riage, Carolyn Cor­bató Stone and Nancy Cor­bató; two step­sons, David Gish and Ja­son Gish; a brother, Charles Cor­bató; and five grand­chil­dren.

COR­BATÓ

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