Dennis Ritchie, father of Unix and C, dies

Dennis Ritchie, father of Unix and C, dies

Summary: The C programming language rests in the hearts of programmers as the quintessential expression of coding elegance, power, simplicity and portability.

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

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.

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.

Rupert Goodwins' profile

Topics: Open Source, Software Development

Rupert Goodwins

About Rupert Goodwins

Rupert started off as a nerdy lad expecting to be an electronics engineer, but having tried it for a while discovered that journalism was more fun. He ended up on PC Magazine in the early '90s, before that evolved into ZDNet UK - and Rupert evolved with them into an online journalist.

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76 comments
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  • I'm sure Stallman will have

    a lot of super nice things to say about him, though!
    William Farrell
    • Batman dies

      Stallman was spared this week when the third death in the "they always go in threes" sequence turned out to be Motorola's Robert Galvin, who has passed at the age of 89.
      Robert Hahn
  • Just curious...

    Where did the name "C" come from? Was there an A and B that came before?
    Michael Kelly
    • RE: Dennis Ritchie, father of Unix and C, dies

      @Michael Kelly
      Sounds funny, but that's correct there's A and B languages, according to nearly all C programming books which always includes history of the language in its first 5 pages. Didn't have time to cross check on the web regarding history of A and B though.
      Martmarty
      • Death to B-pointers

        @Martmarty AmigaDOS, the operating system for the Commodore Amiga, was written in B.
        Robert Hahn
      • RE: Dennis Ritchie, father of Unix and C, dies

        +1
        Martmarty
    • RE: Dennis Ritchie, father of Unix and C, dies

      @Michael Kelly

      "C" was the successor to "B", which was a stripped down version of "BCPL". I *think* the name "C" was inspired by it being *both* the next letter of the alphabet, *and* the next letter of "BCPL".
      rindis1
      • RE: Dennis Ritchie, father of Unix and C, dies

        @rindis@... You are 100% correct.
        Jeremy-UK
      • RE: Dennis Ritchie, father of Unix and C, dies

        @rindis@... : Correct. And BCPL stood for Basic Combined Procedure Language. As I understand there was a small debate about the successor of C, whether it should be called D or P.
        Lord_of_the_Singhs
  • This is a man that deserves multiple days of full coverage on ZDNet

    This was a man who actually invented something, actually moved us forwards. This is a man that actually deserves the accolades that were heaped upon a certain other undeserving individual earlier this month.
    toddybottom
    • RE: Dennis Ritchie, father of Unix and C, dies

      @toddybottom
      +1
      Martmarty
    • RE: Dennis Ritchie, father of Unix and C, dies

      @toddybottom

      Don't agree that the other individual was undeserving, but I do agree that Mr. Ritchie is more deserving. Not to mention less controversial.

      I for one would certainly like to know more about the man and the history behind UNIX and C in the coming days.
      Michael Kelly
    • RE: Dennis Ritchie, father of Unix and C, dies

      @toddybottom That's snarky, and I think you do a disservice to both of them when you say that.

      RIP Dennis.
      Jeremy-UK
      • I mean no disrespect to Dennis Ritchie

        @Jeremy-UK
        He is a man I admire.
        toddybottom
      • RE: Dennis Ritchie, father of Unix and C, dies

        @Jeremy-UK <br><br>Uh, no not really... when still to this moment there is a center column, top row "tribute to Steve Jobs" catalog that lists 147 different posts about the man.<br><br>...equating him to 'this century's Edison' or 'the digital age's Disney'<br><br>Dennis Ritchie paved the road for Steve Jobs and many, many, MANY others to do the things they have done.<br><br>and you have 'people' like <i>obamasucks2011</i> down there saying they've never heard of him... because he didn't invent an iFad device that a bunch of weak-minded consumers go for.
        UrNotPayingAttention
    • RE: Dennis Ritchie, father of Unix and C, dies

      @toddybottom
      +1
      WinTard
    • RE: Dennis Ritchie, father of Unix and C, dies

      @toddybottom
      I wouldn't call Steve Jobs undeserving, but he does not have the stature of Richie. It is once again the case that we stand on the shoulders of GIANTS, and Richie was a true giant who gave the world a couple of wonderful gifts. At a time when computers were just emerging and before the PC or Mac or Apple, Richie and Thompson created C and Unix which lead to so many great advancements in Computer Science and engineering. Without such pioneers we would not have the broad shoulders that support the technologies we all take for granted today.

      Richie was one of the true greats and we should indeed remember him for a long long time. RIP
      bartonphillips
    • RE: Dennis Ritchie, father of Unix and C, dies

      @toddybottom hear, hear
      rod.parfait
    • RE: Dennis Ritchie, father of Unix and C, dies

      @toddybottom No +1 or like button, but you are quite correct.
      darylsonnier
    • RE: Dennis Ritchie, father of Unix and C, dies

      Dennis was an engineer and inventor. Jobs was a spiritual leader. Both deserve lots of praise for how they changed our world for the better. Dennis Ritchie won't get the praise he deserves only because his contribution isn't understood by most people. I will miss Steve Jobs, and I doubt Apple will ever be the same without him. However, of the two, only the news about Dennis Ritchie brought a tear to my eye.
      curtwelch