This past weekend, Dennis Ritchie, software developer and technical author, passed away at age 70. Arguably even more important to our computer age than Steve Jobs, Mr. Ritchie was unknown to most of the hundred of millions of people who benefit from his work every day.
In 1969, along with a handful of other Bell Labs employees, Ritchie developed the multitasking operating system UNIX. It has since become the basis for every implementation of Linux, Google’s Android OS, Apple’s mobile iOS, and the Macintosh platform. While Microsoft Windows does not inherit directly from UNIX, some of its internal concepts do, and another now-obsolete operating system from Microsoft, Xenix, was a UNIX clone.
After the success of UNIX, Ritchie and fellow UNIX developer Brian Kernighan developed the C programming language. Even more pervasive than UNIX, C development has impacted almost every computer on earth in one way or another. Back in 1983, my first job at Motorola–a company which had its own bit of sad news this week with the passing of Bob Galvin, son of the company’s founder and the man that oversaw the development of the world’s first cellular phone–involved writing programs for UNIX using the C language. It was a time of complex systems and thick documentation; the Macintosh wouldn’t come out for six more months.
Kernighan and Ritchie literally wrote the book on C, calling it The C Programming Language. It introduced essential concepts such as language syntax and how to write a “Hello, World” program. Although C as a language is generally straightforward, there are some aspects of its use that are no fun to memorize. One such feature is Order of Evaluation, the rules that determine whether, in a complex mathematical expression, you should perform addition or multiplication first. I never bothered to memorize the long table of rules; instead, I memorized the page number (although I can offer no proof of that 28 years later). So in those pre-PDF days, I had my fingerprints all over Ritchie’s book.
Many of today’s most popular computer languages, including C#, Perl, and Java, are all descended in some way from C and the UNIX system that was C’s playground. And we have Mr. Ritchie to thank for them. As an unknown computer geek, Dennis Ritchie was no Steve Jobs. He was better.