Dennis Ritchie, father of C, Unix, and a giant of computing, dies

Computer pioneer Dennis Ritchie, creator of the C programming language and father of Unix, died recently at 70 after a long illness. His death was confirmed Oct. 13 by Bell Labs, where he had worked for most of his career.

Although he wasn't the household name that many other IT innovators became, Ritchie, who joined Bell Labs in 1967, had an impact on modern computing that altered the landscape. Rupert Goodwins of ZDNet UK, in fact, ranks Ritchie’s work at the top

Goodwins acknowledges the significance of the introduction of the first microprocessor, Intel’s 4004, in 1971 but writes that “the creation of C has as much claim, if not more, to be the true seminal moment of IT as we know it; it sits at the heart of programming — and in the hearts of programmers — as the quintessential expression of coding elegance, power, simplicity and portability.”

News of Ritchie’s death drew other tributes as well. Werner Vogel, Amazon’s chief technology officer, wrote on Twitter: “UNIX is basically a simple operating system, but you have to be a genius to understand the simplicity - Dennis Ritchie, who was a genius, RIP.”

Among the people who posted tweets honoring Ritchie was one who commented: "Dennis Ritchie was engineer/architect whose chapel ceiling Steve Jobs painted.”

In the late 1960s, he and Ken Thompson, who had written the B programming language, set out to write an efficient operating system for the emerging minicomputer, and they developed Unix in 1971. But Unix, written in assembly language, “had a small vocabulary and suffered in relation to memory,” TechCrunch writes.  

So Ritchie and Thompson rewrote Unix in C, “developing its syntax, functionality, and beyond to give the language the ability to program an operating system,” TechCrunch writes. It was completed in 1973. Ritchie and Thompson received the National Medal of Technology from President Bill Clinton in 1999.

Ritchie also co-wrote, with Brian Kernighan, “The C Programming Language,” the definitive text on the subject and a model for technical writing. The book includes reference to Ritchie’s famous "hello world" program, which set the template for a simple program that illustrates how a programming language works.

Although nearly 40 years old, C is still the second most common programming language. And it set the stage for other top languages, including Java (first) and C++ (third), just as Unix set the stage for Linux and forms of the foundation of Mac OS X.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.


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