RIP, Dennis.

Dennis Ritchie
1941 – 2011
The creator of the C programming language and co-creator of UNIX died last week.

Dennis Ritchie died last week of prostate cancer and heart disease. He was 70 years old. I first encountered Kernighan and Ritchie’s classic book “The C Programming Language” around 1983 when I tackled C. (Come to think of it, “C tackled me” is more apt.)

Dr. Ritchie earned a BS in Physics and a PhD in Mathematics from Harvard University. In 1967 he was hired by Bell Labs and worked at its headquarters in Murray Hill, New Jersey until his retirement in 2007.

He created the C programming language and co-created the UNIX operating system. Geoff Duncan light-heartedly asks, Was Dennis Ritchie more important than Steve Jobs?. Mr. Duncan states, “UNIX and C lie at the heart of everything from Internet servers to mobile phones, set-top boxes . . . “

In Dennis Ritchie: the other man inside your iPhone, John Naughton points out that every one of Apple’s products is built upon UNIX. The irony is that Ritchie loved terse user interfaces, while Apple’s user interfaces drip with icons, windows, shadows, etc.

Here’s Dr. Ritchie’s typically modest autobiographical sketch, still hosted by Bell Labs.

Dennis Ritchie laid foundation for today’s computers published an excellent summary of Dr. Ritchie’s enormous influence.

Both C and Unix allow terse expression: You can do a lot with a little bit of code.

In 1969, Dennis and Ken Thompson initially wrote UNIX in DEC (Digital Equipment Corp) PDP-7 assembler. In an age of batch processing, a multi-user, multi-tasking operating system that could be moved from one type of computer to another was a huge step forward. Dennis created the C programming language because he wanted a programming language which allowed faster development than assembler, could be used to develop operating systems, and could run on any computer hardware. Then he and Ken Thompson rewrote most of UNIX in C, which made it portable. They implemented UNIX on a DEC PDP-11 and A.T.&T. announced UNIX to the world in 1973.

The Book

I describe C as a low-level language with high-level constructs. It’s not my favorite language because its flexibility allows programmers to write poorly-documented and buggy code. C requires that the programmer know precisely what he’s doing. Many of today’s buffer over-run exploits by malware are possible because C’s free-form nature allows vulnerable applications to be written (by programmers who don’t know precisely what they’re doing).

Dennis Ritchie’s legacy

Most of the Internet’s backbone runs on servers whose operating systems are UNIX or its derivatives. JavaScript and C++ are direct descendents of C. Linux, Android, and Apple’s Mac OS and iOS are direct descendents of UNIX. Dennis Ritchie was a true heavyweight. He didn’t use his talent to make billions of dollars, and he’s unknown to the general public, but his influence will continue to be felt for many decades.

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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

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