Computer scientist Dennis Ritchie, who is best known for creating the C programming language and for co-authoring The C Programming Language with Brian Kernighan, has passed away at the age of 70. Developers Justin James and Chad Perrin share their thoughts on the innovator and his legacy.

From Justin James:

Dennis Ritchie has died. While the world is still talking about the passing of the iconic Steve Jobs, Dennis Ritchie was barely known outside the world of software development, and his passing will barely be noted in the mainstream. Indeed, even most programmers today have either never heard of him, or are not quite sure what his contribution to the world of computing was. To put it simply, nearly every system you use, just about every piece of consumer and professional electronics on the market, depends upon Dennis Ritchie’s contribution to the world of computing: the C programming language. Now time for some ancient history.

Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson were coworkers at Bell Labs. At one point, they were involved in the development of the Multics operating system, which was a very influential operating system. Then they started working on UNIX. Thompson wanted a better language for programming on UNIX, so he wrote the B programming language. Not much longer, Ritchie took a lot of the ideas from B and made a language of his own for programming UNIX: C. Later on, Ritchie teamed up with Brian Kernighan (who also worked at Bell Labs) to write the definitive book on C, The C Programming Language (popularly known as “K&R”).

If writing the language that most major UNIX systems are written in wasn’t enough, other platforms also used C. Look at the lineage of Apple’s OS X, for example and its roots in UNIX. Microsoft Windows, in its guts, has a pile of C. Of course, UNIX-like operating systems like Linux and BSD are also written in C. And C has become a very popular language for embedded systems development; only recently have ROM chips become speedy enough to allow for Java to start replacing C and Assembler for firmware development. Most of your performance-dependent applications are either written in C or C++, which is derived from C. Applications such as Web browsers and office suites such as Microsoft Office are typically written in C++ as well. And earlier this year, the next generation of C++ was released, showing that the C language is still alive and well. The Objective-C language (which is also derived from C) is the basis for most iPhone and iPad applications. It is safe to say that the modern world runs on top of C. Things would have worked out just fine even if C had never been invented — there were other people working on languages that filled similar roles — but C was what stuck.

Dennis Ritchie never had the visibility of a Bill Gates or a Steve Jobs. He didn’t head a billion dollar company, he was not really into public appearances, and he certainly never sought fame for its sake. If the legends like Gates or Jobs are the Buzz Aldrins of the industry, Dennis Ritchie is a Michael Collins. One stays in the news on a regular basis and is the public face of the industry, but the other played just as important of a role while staying in the background. All the same, Dennis Ritchie’s contributions to programming are foundational, and if C or something like it had never been made, the world would be a poorer place for us to live in.

Dennis Ritchie, thank you for everything.


From Chad Perrin (this is reproduced from Chad’s site with his permission):

In a recent posting to a Linux User Group mailing list, one of the members mentioned that Dennis Ritchie had passed away and went on to describe his formative years when he encountered, and used, the C programming language and Unix operating systems that would never have existed in their current forms without the influence of Dennis Ritchie. The following is adapted from my response to that list.

Real Contributions

At some point in the last couple days, I heard about Dennis Ritchie’s passing. As I have remarked in a few venues, Dennis Ritchie has done a lot more for technology markets, the advancement of the state of the art, and the lives and livelihoods of people with an interest in computing technologies than Steve Jobs ever did — and remember, everyone who loves his or her smartphone, uses TiVo, or browses the Web has an interest in computing technologies. This disparity in the good these two men did applies even if we discount the damage Steve Jobs has done when we tally his contributions. Despite this, I doubt discussion of Dennis Ritchie’s passing will even reach 1% the volume of discussion surrounding Steve Jobs’ passing. While tech pundits all over the Internet are singing paeans to the Second Coming of Steve Jobs, a true great is being ignored except in small niches — a great innovator whose contributions make Jobs’ look like making mud pies in the sandbox and whose damage done is immeasurably small beside the tremendous harm Jobs has caused (even if we only count the harm done via his time at Apple and his cult of personality). I speak, of course, of niches such as LUGs, for those LUGs that have noticed Ritchie’s passing.

We lost Dennis Ritchie just as I have altered the direction of my career, turning toward professional C and C++ development. My first C and C++ source code encounter was about a quarter century ago, and while I have touched the stuff on occasion since then (including what amounts to 1.5 college courses around the turn of the millennium and occasional piddling about since then), I have never really seriously delved into C and C++ until now. I’m also about ready to become a FreeBSD port maintainer for a paste buffer utility written in C. The timing is ironic, and as I look at the copy of Kernighan & Ritchie’s The C Programming Language — often referred to by programmers as “The White Bible” or just “K&R” — it makes me sad that I never considered tracking Dennis Ritchie down in person to ask him to sign the book for me. I might need to take that book and my copy of Kernighan & Pike’s The Unix Programming Environment on a pilgrimage to get Kernighan and Pike to place their signatures appropriately some time in the next couple years.

I am glad that subscriber to that Linux User Group mailing list was motivated to describe his experiences. I think the world needs more references to the undervalued contributions Dennis Ritchie gave to the world, both in terms of personal impact on those of us who are aware of his importance and in terms of the sweeping changes he helped bring into the lives of pretty much everyone on the planet (at least indirectly). I also think the world needs more reference to Steve Jobs’ “contributions” — a mixed bag at best — like you (dear reader) need a hole in your head. The exception would be in cases where any new references exist for the purpose of contrasting the relative paucity and backhandedness of what Jobs has given the world with the more substantial, foundational, pervasive, lasting, and broadly positive contributions of Dennis Ritchie.

The Unrevealed Mystery

Incidentally, as I wrote the first (mailing list) draft of this, I recalled an interesting piece of writing: Dabbling in the Cryptographic World–A Story, by Dennis Ritchie. I am saddened that the day evidently never came when he felt comfortable sharing the final details of that story, and I wonder if they will ever come to light. It seems unlikely Robert Morris (Sr.) will ensure we learn the rest of the story in honor of Ritchie’s evident suppressed desire to tell the tale, but I suppose hope springs eternal.

Chad Perrin

Also read: Dennis Ritchie, father of Unix and C, dies by Rubert Goodwins (ZDNet UK).