Dennis Ritchie, father of Unix and C, dies

Dennis Ritchie, father of Unix and C, dies

Summary: As one of the founders of modern computing, Dennis Ritchie's contributions to software are legendary within the industry, yet deserve to be known to all

TOPICS: Tech Industry

Dennis Ritchie, creator of the C programming language and co-creator of the Unix operating system, has died aged 70.

Dennis Ritchie

Dennis Ritchie, creator of the C programming language and co-creator of the Unix operating system, has died aged 70. Photo credit: Wikipedia

While the introduction of Intel's 4004 microprocessor in 1971 is widely regarded as a key moment in modern computing, the contemporaneous birth of the C programming language is less well known. Yet 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.

Its inventor, Dennis Ritchie, whose death after a long illness was reported on Wednesday and confirmed on Thursday by Bell Labs, similarly embodied a unique yet admirable approach to systems design: a man with a lifelong focus on making software that satisfied the intellect while freeing programmers to create their dreams.

In a statement, Jeong Kim, president of Alcatel-Lucent Bell Labs, said: "Dennis was well loved by his colleagues at Alcatel-Lucent Bell Labs, and will be greatly missed. 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. We would like to express our deepest sympathies to the Ritchie family, and to all who have been touched in some way by Dennis."

Dennis MacAlistair Ritchie was born in Bronxville, New York, on 9 September, 1941, and grew up in New Jersey, where his father, Alistair Ritchie, worked as a switching systems engineer for Bell Laboratories. Ritchie went to Harvard University and received his degree in Physics in 1963.

It was at Harvard that Ritchie first encountered a computer, attending a lecture on Univac 1 that captured his imagination. He moved to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where the first shifts away from the mainframe to smaller, cheaper computers were being ardently investigated, and thence in 1967 to Bell Labs — birthplace of the transistor and, at the time, one of the most important centres of digital innovation in the world.

Multics to Unix

Bell Labs was the home of the Multics project. Multics was an operating system that would replace the idea of batch processing (where programs were run one at a time from a stack of cards by an operator) with interactivity (where the programmer or user themselves had complete control during the writing or use of software). The lab was also home to Kenneth Thompson, who swiftly became one of Ritchie's primary collaborators.

When Bell Labs stopped work on Multics, Thompson and Ritchie were loath to abandon the ideas of interaction and collaboration that had been key to its design. Thompson began work on a successor, called Unix, and Ritchie soon joined in.

Having persuaded Bell Labs to buy one of the most advanced small computers of the time, a Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-11, on the back of a promise to write a word-processing system for the patent department, the pair instead created the modern operating system. Unix spread within Bell Labs and was announced to the world in 1973.

C programming language

The mid-'70s were a period of great experimentation and variation in computer hardware design, which made life difficult for software writers who had to either limit their programs to running on one particular device or spend a great deal of time and energy recreating their work for each new platform.

C-Programming Language book cover

The C Programming Language, also known as K&R, was published in 1978. It was a peerless introduction to the techniques of programming in C. Photo credit: Wikipedia

In response to this problem, Ritchie designed a computer language, C, that could be quickly and easily moved between different hardware. Programs that were written in C, provided they followed the rules, would then run with little or no modification on any computer that could itself run C.

Thompson and Ritchie then rewrote Unix in C, giving the operating system the same ease of portability. Programmers could then learn one operating system, one set of tools and one language, and find those skills nearly universally applicable. Likewise, once a hardware manufacturer had put C on its new design, the machine could use a vast pool of existing software and talent. One side effect of this was that Unix became the natural home for experimental, then practical, inter-networking between different systems.

Thus were created all the key aspects of the environment within which computing became the economic and cultural force that subsequently reshaped — and continues to reshape — the world.

This revolution was much enhanced by Ritchie's collaboration with Brian Kernighan on The C Programming Language. Otherwise known as K&R, this slim book, published in 1978, acted as both a concise definition of C and a peerless introduction to the style and techniques of programming in that language. It remains a source of inspiration and practical help to programmers to this day.

Spiritual descendants

Unix and C's direct and spiritual descendants cannot be counted, but include Linux, Android, Mac OS, iOS, JavaScript, C++, the genius of the internet and a world full of developers. Likewise, legal restrictions on how Bell Labs and its parent, AT&T, could commercially exploit software — an antitrust ruling prevented standard licensing — meant that the ideas and, often, the actual code underlying Unix and C became a de facto open system.

Ritchie had the lifestyle and habits to match his position as an early guru of IT. Long-haired and bearded, and famously more owl than lark, he started work at midday in his industry-standard chaotic office, emerging late in the evening to go home and carry on working through to the small hours at the end of a leased line connected to the Bell Labs computers.

In later life, having become a manager, he could sometimes be seen in the wild before lunchtime, if meetings demanded it. His life and work were entirely intertwined; a man celebrated for his gentle wit and gentle ways, nothing about him could be considered separate from his lifelong fascination with computing. 

He ultimately became head of Lucent Technology Systems's software research department, retiring in 2007. By then, he and Thompson had received many industry awards, including the ACM Turing Prize in 1983 and the 1998 US National Medal of Technology

His ideas live on, in the rudest of health, at the centre of modern operating system design, in new programming languages, and in every electron and bit of open systems.

Topic: Tech Industry

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  • This is truly a sad day. He was a true inspiration.
  • RIP Mr. Ritchie............
  • The real master of modern technology is no more and the commercial world has hardly taken cognizance of this great loss. He was a true inventor and today's gadgets run on something he and his team invented in the 1979's. Let us salute a great son of humanity.

  • the father of " C " NO MORE
  • I think quite a few of us owe our careers to him. I'm sad that I was not able to meet and work with such a warm and gentle fellow. It feels .. strange .. to see him pass, something in me just took for granted that he'd be around forever.

    But well, he is, in many ways. Every new programmer on a UNIX like operating system that is curious about how the OS actually works can call him a friend. We should all aspire to this level of accomplishment, but more importantly, the bar he set for tolerance and his continuous pursuit of doing things just a little bit better than we have.

    So long Dennis, and thanks for all the fish.
    Tim Post
  • Truly inspiring for generations to come. RIP
  • There have been so many great lives ended recently but Dennis Richie has a special place. Without the open systems that a common Unix API brought about the "viral" spread of the internet would likely not have happened. So not only do we have him to that for one of the most elegant programming languages, one of the most portable operating systems but also for enabling one of the most fundamental changes in which we, as a species, communicate.

  • This is a far greater loss.
    Rest in peace man, the geeks of the world salute you.
  • Hardly ever heard about in the technology world, his books are delightful reading. Clear articulate, crisp, even fun. Everything about his work was something to strive toward. The only book on programming I'd read that literally made me want to code. The language has never been improved upon. In its elementary form, it is simply a portable assembler. Thought to machine language conversion can always be argued, but K&R's 'C' language, could literally be implemented easily and so compactly, it made Microprocessors in the 1970s useful, and helped launch revolutions in CPU applications from embedded systems to Bell Lab's Unix OS knock offs, like Linux. The core of the Free Software Foundation's amazing contribution as well. Had it been even a bit less perfect all these follow on efforts might have never come to fruition. Bless his eternal soul. and.. thanks for Leor Zolman for implementing the best "C" compiler for microprocessors ever seen in those early days!
  • Think you Dennis Ritchie.
    You are Masterpiece of IT industry. If you did not start C, any IT technology never grew up right now. Your attainment gave the life and fortune to people.
    The C is producing present Internet world.
    I miss you.
    R.I.P. Dennis Ritchie.
  • A true initiator of IT innovation .......... next hundrends of generation are going to miss him. What he has started with "C" language is true beginning of today's matured IT industry. A salute from a IT professional.............
  • Thanks for everything.. it's hard to imagine a world without UNIX, LINUX or 'C'... I for one would not be doing what I do (web-developer).. so thanks for paving the way for innovation, and providing creative minds with the tools to get the job done... PEACE & LOVE

    Harbo /maker of online design software
  • The IT industry lost its extra ordinary genius Dennis Ritchie.
  • I learned C before any other high level language and K&R was my bible! I still have my old 8" flexible disks with Leor Zolman's BDS C for CP/M - those were the days when you could rule the world with 64kB RAM! Dennis' star eclipsed that of Steve Jobs by several magnitudes.
    Chris Marshall-aa2f2
  • I used to attend Usenix conferences very regularly (often twice a year, from Europe!). One of the many motivations I had was the hope that Ritchie or Thompson might be there.

    The world is a lesser place without him.

  • The K&R text is a masterpiece. Dennis Ritchie, you will be missed. RIP.
  • Sad, very sad. I had no pity when I heard about Steve Jobs. But this man... it's different. I will never forget my excitement when I started learning C ten years ago. Thanks for C, UNIX, your contribution to OS development! Rest in peace.
  • Many tears were shed while trying to deal with learning C. Countless more are shed on learning that that Ritchie has passed away. Thank you for what you gave us: a computer language and a way of life.
  • C you later.

  • Dennis Ritchie, you shaped the whole world in technology and now your time here is over and accomplished a good job...the world will never forget your contribution here. Generations will continue what you had started.