During the media storm over the death of Steve Jobs, there was another, arguably more significant, passing: Dennis M. Ritchie, creator of the C programming language and (with long-time colleague Ken Thompson) the Unix operating system, who was found dead at his home in New Jersey on the 12th October after a long illness.
Dennis Ritchie was a computer scientist who truly “helped shape the digital era“: for his work on C and Unix, he was jointly awarded with Thompson in 1983 the ACM Turing Award (see his Turing Award Lecture: “Reflections on Software Research“), as well as the IEEE Richard W. Hamming Medal (1990) and The National Medal of Technology and Innovation (1998) (with the citation describing their contributions as having “led to enormous advances in computer hardware, software, and networking systems and stimulated growth of an entire industry, thereby enhancing American leadership in the Information Age.”). He was the ‘R’ in K&R C and commonly known by his username dmr. Ritchie was the head of Lucent Technologies (formerly Bell Labs, now part of Alcatel-Lucent) System Software Research Department when he retired in 2007.
Ritchie had a key role in shaping today’s computing environment; his influence rivals, if not surpasses, Steve Jobs’ — it is just less visible. While the response from the tech press was excellent, the collective eulogy from the press at large did not quite do justice to Ritchie’s sweeping influence on the modern world. As Rob Pike, Principal Engineer at Google, who spent 20 years working across the hall from Ritchie at Bell Labs, said:
Pretty much everything on the Web uses those two things: C and Unix. The browsers are written in C. The Unix kernel — that pretty much the entire Internet runs on — is written in C. Web servers are written in C, and if they’re not, they’re written in Java or C++, which are C derivatives, or Python or Ruby, which are implemented in C. And all of the network hardware running these programs I can almost guarantee were written in C.
It’s really hard to overstate how much of the modern information economy is built on the work Dennis did.
Much of my research and teaching has been based upon leveraging Ritchie’s work (or its derivatives). Even my undergraduate dissertation developed a GCC front end for BCPL, a precursor to C (see Ritchie’s Development of the C Language). With computer science being a relatively modern discipline, it is a pleasure to be able to meet and hear the early pioneers speak (for example, Donald Knuth at last year’s BCS/IET Turing Lecture); unfortunately, this type of news may start to come all too frequently (such as the sad news in late October of the death of John McCarthy, the father of AI).
But as Brian Kernighan so eloquently puts it:
There’s that line from Newton about standing on the shoulders of giants…we’re all standing on Dennis’ shoulders.