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Robert Fano, Computing Pioneer and Founder of Csail, Dies at 98

Robert Fano, a professor emeritus in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Robert Fano's work on information theory and time-sharing computers were vital precursors to today's computing technologies.

Credit: Jason Dorfman/MIT CSAIL

Robert "Bob" Fano, a professor emeritus in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), whose work helped usher in the personal computing age, died in Naples, Florida on July 13. He was 98.

During his time on the faculty at MIT, Fano conducted research across multiple disciplines, including information theory, networks, electrical engineering and radar technologies. His work on "time-sharing" — systems that allow multiple people to use a computer at the same time — helped pave the way for the more widespread use of computers in society.

Much of his early work in information theory has directly impacted modern technologies. His research with Claude Shannon, for example, spurred data-compression techniques like Huffman coding that are used in today’s high-definition TVs and computer networks.

In 1961, Fano and Fernando Corbató, professor emeritus in EECS, developed the Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS), one of the earliest time-sharing systems. The success of CTSS helped convince MIT to launch Project MAC, a pivotal early center for computing research for which Fano served as its founding director. Project MAC has since dramatically expanded to become MIT’s largest interdepartmental research lab, the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).

"Bob did pioneering work in computer science at a time when many people viewed the field as a curiosity rather than a rigorous academic discipline," CSAIL director Daniela Rus says. "None of our work here would have been possible without his passion, insight, and drive."


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