October 13, 2011

A Few Brief Thoughts on the Death of Computer Science Titan Dennis Ritchie

Dennis Ritchie has died after a long illness. He was only the relatively young age of 70. Unlike Steve Jobs, Dennis was not a household name. He should have been, but he was a quiet and private person, and would have hated the publicity.

I've known Dennis since the early days of the UNIX operating system at Bell Labs in the 70s, where he created the ubiquitous "C" programming language, and co-created UNIX with Ken Thompson.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of this work to today's world. UNIX was almost entirely written in "C" -- and UNIX's direct descendants like Linux power Google, the Web at large (the vast majority of Web servers run Linux), and likely multiple devices in your home and office right now. The current Mac OS. Android. TiVo. The impact of C and Linux are everywhere. Your ability to read these words rests directly to a major degree on Dennis' work.

But beyond the nitty-gritty of software design, the creation of UNIX was also the inception of what would ultimately become the open source community, and the vast collaborations of the ARPANET/Internet that have led to the global phenomenon we see today.

Such goals were explicit in the design of UNIX. In this 1980s Bell Labs video from my collection, featuring Ken and Dennis explaining the origins of UNIX, Dennis explains how they wanted the system to specifically foster community and fellowship.

I said this would be brief. I'll close with one personal story. Back in the early UNIX days, on one of my visits to Bell Labs' main facilities in Murray Hill, New Jersey, I was sitting at a terminal in the 1127 Labs where UNIX was developed, logged in over the nascent Net back to UCLA. As usual, I was trying to get a bit of coding done even on this trip.

My rapid typing suddenly stopped as I puzzled over a particularly complex C language declaration in the program, that definitely was incorrect as it stood.

Sitting at the terminal next to me was Dennis. So I asked his advice on the declaration -- after all, who better to know than the creator of the language?

He thought about it for no more than a few seconds, then immediately (and graciously) provided an elegant solution that, frankly, would not have occurred to me. I got on with my programming.

In later years, I realized that this exchange was probably the closest I'd ever come in my life to asking a question directly to, and receiving a detailed answer from, a true god.

Rest in peace, Dennis.


Posted by Lauren at October 13, 2011 10:34 AM | Permalink
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