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Dennis Ritchie: A Tribute to a Great Man

Homer's picture
Dennis Ritchie

Dennis Ritchie, 1941-2011: Father of the C programming language, and co-creator of Unix.

Dennis MacAlistair Ritchie, creator of the C programming language and co-author of the famous book by the same name (a.k.a. ‘the K&R book’), much loved and respected by C programmers the world over, sadly passed away last weekend.

Before retiring in 2007, Ritchie followed in his father's footsteps by joining Bell Labs in 1967, starting a career that spanned 40 years in the field of computer science. There he contributed to the Multics project (the forerunner of Unix) and a compiler for the BCPL language, then eventually co-created the Unix operating system with Ken Thompson. During his work on Unix, Ritchie created the C Programming Language, which is now a formal ANSI and ISO standard, and is one of the most widely used programming languages of all time, currently only equalled by James Gosling's Java in popularity.

Ritchie was jointly honoured with several awards during his lifetime, along with Ken Thompson, including the Turing Award in 1983, the Hamming Medal in 1990, the (US) National Medal of Technology in 1999 and, most recently, the Japan Prize for Information and Communications in 2011.

Jeong Kim, president of Alcatel-Lucent Bell Labs, said in a statement:

He was truly an inspiration to all of us, not just for his many accomplishments, but because of who he was as a friend, an inventor, and a humble and gracious man.

The world of computing owes a great debt of gratitude to Dennis Ritchie, without whom there might have been no Unix as we know it today, and thus no Mac OS X or GNU/Linux. In fact the computing landscape might have been very different indeed, given that most of the world's software is written in C. For any man to make such a contribution is a magnificent achievement, but Ritchie was also a kind and humble man, worthy of praise purely by virtue of his character. It's difficult to imagine a man more radically different to Steve Jobs, for example, than Dennis Ritchie.

The news was broken by his former friend and colleague Rob Pike in the early hours of this morning, and was received with great sadness and a stream of well-deserved tributes.

Bob Plankers: ‘I was lucky to spend a couple hours talking with him once at a USENIX conference party, about everything but C & UNIX. :) A great, quiet, humble guy, and I hope wherever he is now he's comfortable. My condolences, Mr. Pike, and to all those who knew him better than I.

Peter da Silva: ‘Like Bob Plankers I had only spent a few hours with Dennis over the years, mostly at Usenix, but he was always kind and thoughtful, a charming combination of brilliance and humility.

Bill Bradford: ‘Never met the man in person but his work has directly influenced my life and career.

Matt Joyce: ‘The man is a legend. And when the world has forgotten Steve Jobs coders across the world will remember Ritchie and continue to code in C.

Jon "maddog" Hall: ‘Words can not express the sorrow I feel right now

Todd Vierling: ‘I can't believe this hasn't made slashdot [especially this late]. iProducts wouldn't exist if it weren't for dmr's contributions to modern technology.

Lester Osvaldo Bello: ‘No words are enough for what Ritchie did for our field. C and UNIX are two of the biggest pillars of Computer Science. Here's to dmr, a bonafide engineer. I wish I could have meet him in person.

Ed Gould: ‘Dennis would deny that he changed the world, but the number of people standing on his shoulders show just what a giant he was.

Nigel Bree: ‘He was modest but truly, he was a titan, and left the world a much richer place.

Tributes also came from boingboing and TPB.

Boingboing wrote:

He was the designer and original developer of the C programming language, and a central figure in the development of Unix. He spent much of his career at Bell Labs. He was awarded the Turing Award in 1983, and the National Medal of Technology in 1999.

"Ritchie's influence rivals Jobs's; it's just less visible," James Grimmelman observed on Twitter. "His pointer has been cast to void *; his process has terminated with exit code 0."

And TPB added:

Along with cohort Ken Thompson, Dennis was a pioneer of modern computing ... In 1988, Ritchie become a member of the National Academy of Engineering due to the far reaching and influential effects of both of these projects ... Ritchie is the 1983 winner of the Turing Award. It was here he gave his famous lecture “Reflections on Software Research. Alongside Ken Thompson, Ritchie received the IEEE Richard W. Hamming Medal from IEEE in 1990.

If there is any death that should be mourned in the month of October, it is that of Dennis Ritchie. I doubt that he would want to be evangelized (like another passing that occurred recently), but your respects we ask for. If you have an iPhone or an iPad, iMac or iPod, his work is there. Much of it is just the way he left it. The difference is, he actually invented it.

Here's Ritchie's biography from Bell Labs (down at the time of writing):

Dennis M. Ritchie

Dennis M. Ritchie is a researcher in the Convergence, Software, and Computer Science Laboratory of Bell Labs / Lucent Technologies in Murray Hill, NJ. Before that, he was in the now-dissolved Computing Sciences Research Center, serving for several years as head of its Systems Sciences Research department.

I was born Sept. 9, 1941 in Bronxville, N.Y., and received Bachelor's and advanced degrees from Harvard University, where as an undergraduate I concentrated in Physics and as a graduate student in Applied Mathematics. The subject of my 1968 doctoral thesis was subrecursive hierarchies of functions.

My undergraduate experience convinced me that I was not smart enough to be a physicist, and that computers were quite neat. My graduate school experience convinced me that I was not smart enough to be an expert in the theory of algorithms and also that I liked procedural languages better than functional ones.

I joined Bell Labs in 1967, following my father, Alistair E. Ritchie, who had a long career there. His most visible public accomplishment was as co-author of The Design of Switching Circuits, with W. Keister and S. Washburn; it was an influential book on switching theory and logic design just before the transistor era.

Soon after, I contributed to the Multics project, then a joint effort of Bell Labs, MIT, and General Electric. I helped with a compiler for the BCPL language on the Multics machine (GE 645) and on the GE 635 under the GECOS system. Also, I wrote the compiler for ALTRAN, a language and system for symbolic calculation.

Subsequently, I aided Ken Thompson in creating the Unix operating system. After Unix had become well established in the Bell System and in a number of educational, government and commercial installations, Steve Johnson and I (helped by Ken) transported the operating system to the Interdata 8/32, thus demonstrating its portability, and laying the groundwork for the widespread growth of Unix: the Seventh Edition version from the Bell Labs research group was the basis for commercial Unix System V and also for the Unix BSD distributions from the University of California at Berkeley. The last important technical contribution I made to Unix was the Streams mechanism for interconnecting devices, protocols, and applications.

Early in the development of Unix, I added data types and new syntax to Thompson's B language, thus producing the new language C. C was the foundation for the portability of Unix, but it has become widely used in other contexts as well; much application and system development for computers of all sizes, from hand-held to supercomputer, uses it. There are unified U.S. and international standards for the language, and it is the basis for Stroustrup's work on its descendant C++.

Today, as a manager of a small group of researchers, I promote exploration of distributed operating systems, languages, and routing/switching hardware. The recent accomplishments of this group include the Plan 9 operating system, which was released in 1995, and the Inferno operating system, announced April 1996.

Awards include: ACM award for the outstanding paper of 1974 in systems and languages; IEEE Emmanuel Piore Award (1982), Bell Laboratories Fellow (1983); Association for Computing Machinery Turing Award (1983); ACM Software Systems Award (1983); C&C Foundation award of NEC (1989); IEEE Hamming Medal (1990). I was elected to the U. S. National Academy of Engineering in 1988. In April 1999 I received the U. S. National Medal of Technology. These were all awarded in conjunction with Ken Thompson.

Ken's virtual coat-tails are long. I'm one of the few, besides Bonnie T., who has seen him wear a real coat (and even black tie) on more than one occasion.

I'll leave you with this fitting humorous quote (thanks to TPB):

‘UNIX is basically a simple operating system, but you have to be a genius to understand the simplicity.’ ~ dmr


Michael Glasser, a.k.a.'Snit''s picture

Yes, he was a great man and it is a great loss

[Comment submitted by a known Internet troll and shameless Apple fanboy]

It is a loss and he will be missed.

But when Jobs died you babbled about: "According to the CIA World Factbook, 160,521 people die every day." Now you want to focus on one.

Of course. You are a hypocrite.

Homer's picture

Balancing the books

Not at all, Snit, I'm just trying to balance the books.

After all, it was OK for you and the rest of the Apple cult to wail hysterically over the death of a plagiarist and vicious tyrant like Jobs, so it's only fair that decent and truly inventive people like Ritchie are properly honoured too, isn't it? We wouldn't want only evil bastards like Jobs to get all the publicity, would we?