The World’s First Computer Password? It Was Useless Too

MIT's Time-Sharing Computer

The World’s First Computer Password? It Was Useless Too
WIRED, January 27, 2012
By Robert McMillan

“Who invented the computer password?”


If you’re like most people, you’re annoyed by passwords. You’ve got dozens to remember — some of them tortuously complex — and on any given day, as you read e-mails, send tweets, and order groceries online, you’re bound to forget one, or at least mistype it. You may even be one of those unfortunate people who’ve had a password stolen, thanks to the dodgy security on the machines that store them.


But who’s to blame? Who invented the computer password?


Like the invention of the wheel or the story of the doorknob, the password’s creation is shrouded in the mists of history. Romans used them. Shakespeare kicks off Hamlet with one — “Long live the King” — when Bernardo must prove he’s a loyal soldier of the King of Denmark. But where did the first computer password show up?


It probably arrived at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the mid-1960s, when researchers at the university built a massive time-sharing computer called CTSS. The punchline is that even then, passwords didn’t protect users as well as they could have. Technology changes. But, then again, it doesn’t.


Nearly all of the computer historians contacted by Wired in the past few weeks said that the first password must have come from MIT’s Compatible Time-Sharing System. In geek circles, it’s famous. CTSS pioneered many of the building blocks of computing as we know it today: things like e-mail, virtual machines, instant messaging, and file sharing.

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About the Author:

Robert McMillan covers the complex technologies that run behind the scenes to make your mobile apps do cool things.