CSAIL founder & computing pioneer Bob Fano turns 98

Professor Emeritus Fano blows out the candles with CSAIL Director Daniela Rus (right) and Event Coordinator Victoria Palay.

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photo by Jason Dorfman, MIT CSAIL
Professor Emeritus Fano blows out the candles with CSAIL Director Daniela Rus (right) and Event Coordinator Victoria Palay.

photo by Jason Dorfman, MIT CSAIL

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Today lab members celebrated the 98th birthday of Professor Emeritus Robert “Bob” Fano, who 52 years ago founded MIT’s Project MAC, the predecessor to CSAIL.

In 1963 The Italian-born Fano co-founded Project MAC, a project focused on developing time-sharing computers. The project laid the foundation for many of today's software systems and helped the computer evolve from its academic roots as a technology that would be of interest to the wider public. (In 1970 Project MAC was renamed the Laboratory of Computer Science; in 2003 it merged with the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory to become CSAIL.)

Fano was Director of Project MAC until 1968, and served as Associate Head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from 1971 to 1974. He conducted and published research on topics as wide-ranging as time-sharing, information theory, networks, microwaves, electromagnetism, and engineering education.

 

A prescient pioneer

Decades before the emergence of PCs, Fano spoke of the many ways that computers would change the world.

In a 1964 video interview, he said that “the situation with computers today is similar to [that of] electrical and mechanical power following the invention of the steam engine.”

“The steam engine made it possible for people to build locomotives and big machines that could do work that no group of individuals could possibly do. In the same sense, computers today can compute calculations and logical operations that would take years for people to do by hand.”

He spoke of computers’ potential to give you “a whole library at your fingertips,” and the importance of making the computer “a utility” much like water or electricity.

photo by Jason Dorfman, MIT CSAIL