Dennis Ritchie, 1941-2011

October 13, 2011

The recent death of Steve Jobs has been much in the news recently, and a great deal has been written about his work, both from a business and a technical perspective.  Much less noticed was the death of another pioneer of the modern computing era, Dennis Ritchie.

Ritchie received his undergraduate degree and PhD from Harvard University.  He began working at Bell Labs (as it then was) in 1967, where he worked with Ken Thompson and Brian Kernighan on the development of the UNIX operating system.  If you have a computer or other device that runs Android, Mac OS X, Solaris, AIX, a BSD system,  or Linux, you are using a system based on ideas first developed in UNIX at Bell Labs.  (I have written here a couple of times about the  40+ year history of UNIX and its relatives.)

Ritchie was also the principal developer of the C programming language, and co-authored, with Brian Kernighan, the classic book The C Programming Language, frequently referred to as K&R.    C became an important programming language in its own right, especially for systems programming, and it was used for many parts of the UNIX OS itself.  The classic Hello,world! program first appeared in K&R.

In 1983, Ritchie received the Association for Computing Machinery’s [ACM] Turing Award, jointly with Ken Thompson, for the design and implementation of UNIX.; the award selection committee said that:

The success of the UNIX system stems from its tasteful selection of a few key ideas and their elegant implementation. The model of the UNIX system has led a generation of software designers to new ways of thinking about programming.  The genius of the UNIX system is its framework, which enables programmers to stand on the work of others.

Ritchie’s award lecture [PDF] was entitled Reflections of Software Research.  I’ve mentioned Thompson’s companion lecture, Reflections on Trusting Trust, several times here.

In 1990, Ritchie and Thompson also received the IEEE Richard W. Hamming Medal from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, also for their work on UNIX; in 1999, they received the National Medal of Technology from President Clinton.

I feel fortunate to have been able to see all this unfold as it happened.

Update Thursday, 13 October, 17:27 EDT

Ars Technica has a brief memorial article about Dennis Ritchie.

Update Thursday, 13 October, 23:55 EDT

Wired now also has an article on Dennis Ritchie, which focuses on his technical contributions.  It includes information from Rob Pike, another member of the Bell Labs technical staff.

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