Robert Fano, 98, Dies; Engineer Who Helped Develop Interactive Computers


Robert Fano.

Jason Dorfman/M.I.T.

Robert Fano, an electrical engineer who was instrumental in creating a world of instantly responsive computers, died on July 13 in Naples, Fla. He was 98.

His daughter Paola Nisonger confirmed his death.

As a pioneering computer designer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Mr. Fano made fundamental theoretical advances, both in the ways computers handled information and in the design of interactive software that made it possible for the machines to support many simultaneous users.

Building on the idea of shared computing proposed in 1961 by John McCarthy, an artificial intelligence researcher, Dr. Fano collaborated with another electrical engineer, Fernando J. Corbato, to develop the first time-sharing computer operating system, known as Compatible Time-Sharing System, or CTSS, to run on an IBM computer.

Before the advent of time-sharing, computers were largely walled off from users in glass rooms. Programs were run sequentially, submitted in decks of punched cards. Users then returned later — often one or two days — to receive the output as printouts.

The system was notoriously frustrating, Dr. Fano recalled in a 1985 lecture: “If you misplaced a comma in any program, well, those two days were gone!”

CTSS marked a fundamental shift leading to a more interactive computing world in which users worked at individual terminals. It also soon led to Project MAC, an M.I.T. computation center for which Dr. Fano was the founding director in 1963. It ushered in a world where computing influenced a wide range of new ideas, ultimately including personal computing.

Initially financed by the psychologist J. C. R. Licklider, who was then directing the Information Processing Techniques Office at the Advanced Research Projects Office at the Pentagon, Project MAC stood for both Multiple Access Computing and Machine Aided Cognition. It was part of an early wave of computing research focused on the idea of a “man-computer symbiosis” that Dr. Licklider proposed in an influential paper in 1960.

Dr. Fano recalled picking up the challenge because no one else stepped forward.

“At a certain point, I decided if nobody was ready to get the ball rolling, I was going to do it, although my experience with computers was close to nil,” he said in an interview with the filmmaker Errol Morris.

He said the project also helped establish the field of computer science apart from electrical engineering.

Project MAC would lead to a proliferation of new ideas in computing and artificial intelligence research. One crucial component was the simultaneous development of the Multics operating system — a joint effort of M.I.T. and corporations such as General Electric and Bell Labs, under the auspices of Project MAC.

“The whole concept of Multics was going to be something that revolutionized the way people used computers in a way that was humanistic and friendly,” said Peter Neumann, a computer scientist who was then a Bell Labs researcher who participated in the project.

Project MAC was also significant in training a generation of technologists who would spread ideas far beyond the insular community of hackers who built the original system.

Two of the early Project MAC designers were Daniel Bricklin and Robert Frankston, M.I.T. students who went on to develop the Visicalc spreadsheet program, which was instrumental in bringing personal computing to the business world.

Mr. Frankston recalled that Dr. Fano was interested in the social aspect of computing. “The Multics project was about interactive computing, which kept people involved,” he said. “Contrast that with Google’s goal of a driverless car with people reduced to being passengers.”

Computing was one of several fields Dr. Fano pursued. His interest in information theory was piqued one day in 1948 as a young professor of electrical engineering at M.I.T., when Norbert Wiener, a mathematician who coined the term cybernetics, poked his head into Dr. Fano’s office and said cryptically: “You know, information is entropy.”

That started Dr. Fano on a long meditation and ultimately led to a collaboration with a Bell Laboratories mathematician and electrical engineer, Claude Shannon, also a pioneer in the field of information theory, on new approaches to data compression. The ideas were further evolved by one of Dr. Fano’s students, David A. Huffman, who developed a way to compress data without losing information.

Robert Mario Fano was born in Turin, Italy, on Nov. 11, 1917. He was a student at the School of Engineering of Torino in 1939 when his family was forced to move to the United States in the face of Mussolini’s anti-Jewish legislation.

After getting his undergraduate degree at M.I.T., he worked briefly at General Motors, supervising operators of welding machines, but he quickly returned to graduate studies at M.I.T. During World War II, he joined the Radiation Laboratory there and was involved in the development of microwave radar. He spent a decade in information theory before turning his attention to computing.

Besides his daughter Paola, Dr. Fano is survived by two other daughters, Linda Ryan and Carol Fano, and five grandchildren.

Correction: July 29, 2016

An obituary on Thursday about Robert Fano, an electrical engineer who was instrumental in creating a world of instantly responsive computers, misspelled the surname of the mathematician who coined the term cybernetics. He is Norbert Wiener, not Weiner.

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