‘Hello, World'. The simple, sleek and elementary programme that generates this phrase, written in computing language ‘C', has introduced generations of technologists to the world of computing. The man behind this code, and author of the seminal computing textbook The C Programming Language, Dennis Ritchie, passed away on October 12 at his home in New Jersey.
Inventor of ‘C' and co-creator of the Unix operating system, Ritchie's enduring contributions powered the wired world that we know today. Along with Ken Thompson, Ritchie developed tools and technologies that to this day provide the infrastructure for technologies ranging from the smartphone in your pocket to servers, data centres and supercomputers.
As the news of Ritchie's death spread, amidst obituaries and heart-felt tributes were sharp comparisons drawn with Apple co-founder Steve Jobs', who died a week before. The timing of the two deaths made comparisons inevitable; technologists and computer historians rued the manner in which the media eulogised the media-savvy Jobs, and many pointed out that Ritchie was, metaphorically speaking, “the shoulders that Steve Jobs stood on”.
A different league
Comparisons apart, Ritchie's work is altogether in a different league. His contributions date back to the seventies, when he and Thompson dug their heels in and continued to pursue a project that was abandoned by Bell Labs, where Ritchie worked for four long decades.
After Multics (Multiplexed Information and Computing Service), a proposed operating system that would enable time-sharing on networks, was shelved by the lab, the duo decided to build a simpler system for smaller and simpler computing units, called Unix. However, Unix in its early avatar was complex and unportable.
To solve this, Ritchie created a new computer language ‘C', one that was simpler, more concise, quicker, and most importantly, portable. This meant that the programmes could be run on different types of hardware. Once Unix was made portable, it began to spread, first becoming popular among academia and research institutions. Many years later, in 1978, Ritchie co-wrote a book on the programming language, The C Programming Language, that not only went on to serve as a primer for learning and teaching ‘C', but also defined, and re-defined, the approach to programming.
Ritchie and Thompson were awarded the Turing Award from the Association for Computing Machinery in 1983, and the U.S. National Medal of Technology in 1988. To understand the magnitude of significance of these achievements, one must understand where both ‘C' and Unix figure in today's world. The answer is, everywhere.
While ‘C', the most widely used programming language, and its derivatives, are the language of devices, operating systems and embedded systems (all your gadgets!), Unix and its derivatives run the world's servers, data systems and computers. The collaborative GNU project, with its recursive acronym GNU's Not Linux, and the Linux kernel, both derivatives of Ritchie's original ideas and work, lie at the core of open source software, which power devices and enable technologies and networking worldwide. Of course, this fit in very well with Ritchie's own vision of where he wanted his work to go; famously, he once said that he wanted Unix to be “a system along which fellowship can form”.
A Physics undergraduate, and a graduate student in Applied Mathematics, Ritchie took to computers by chance. In his short bio on the website of Bell Labs, from where he retired, he humbly offers that he felt he was “not smart enough to be a physicist, and that computers were quite neat”.
Aptly, he adds, that his graduate school experience convinced him that he liked “procedural languages better than functional ones”. His achievements just years within joining Bell Labs, indeed proved his decision right.