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The legacy of computer scientist Dennis Ritchie

Posted: January 14, 2015
Written by: Saints At Play
Category: Key People

October 5th 2011 and reports of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs’ death was headline news throughout online media outlets in every country around the world. Websites, blogs, twitter feeds, Facebook pages and news portals were filled with tributes, plaudits and commemorations (many of which were truly deserved - whether you’re an apple fanboi or not - and some that were just plainly ridiculous) and wherever you went it seemed, thanks to the media, that the man was larger in death than he ever was in life.

Yet on October 8th 2011 another important pioneer in the early days of the computing industry passed away, his name generating very little media attention despite his contributions being every bit as significant as those of Job’s, possibly, and even arguably, more so.

His name? Dennis Ritchie.

Now you’re no doubt familiar with how Steve Jobs helped revolutionise the computer industry and several related fields (including e-books, digital music players and mobile phones). You’ll probably also be aware of how his efforts in the early days of Apple helped to encourage the mass adoption of certain computer technologies that we all take for granted now such as the mouse and the GUI.

What you might not be aware of is how that might never have happened were it not for the work of Dennis Ritchie and the foundation that his work helped to lay for others to build their vision on top of.

Ritchie, an American computer scientist is responsible for developing the C programming language, while working for AT&T Bell Labs, and, along with fellow colleague Ken Thompson, helped to co-design and develop the Unix operating system. In addition he was also the co-author of the book The C Programming Language which is widely cited as a model in technical writing for its brevity, eloquence and completeness.

Interestingly, it also appears that this book was the first to use the Hello World program example, a convention which has since been widely reused in similar demonstrations with other programming languages.

In and of themselves the above accomplishments might not seem particularly impressive, particularly with the plethora of programming languages, operating systems and IT books available to developers, consumers and business alike.

What really makes Ritchie’s accomplishments truly remarkable though is their reach and impact, particularly in the 40+ years since their original development and release, which still resonates strongly in the present day.

Many development languages in popular use such as Java, C++, Objective-C, C#, Perl, Python, PHP and JavaScript are all derived from the original C programming language, particularly with regards to its syntax and concepts. Many libraries, interpreters and compilers of other programming languages are also written in C. In addition much of the software used in consumer electrical goods and embedded systems is derived from or uses C.

For example:

  • Navigation systems
  • Battery chargers
  • Cameras
  • Cash Registers
  • Clocks
  • DVD Players
  • Parking Meters
  • Refrigerators
  • Thermostats
  • TVs
  • Vending machines
  • Watches

It really is no exaggeration to state the impact this language has had and continues to have in everyday use, often invisibly and unknown to many people who derive benefits from its existence and implementation.

Similarly, the Unix OS has also spawned a variety of derivatives the most notable of which are Linux, and its various ‘flavours’ and BSD (Berkeley Software Distribution) which has been used in a variety of commercial and open-source operating system, the most notable of which are Mac OS X and iOS. NeXTSTEP, the OS developed by NeXT Inc, that ultimately became the prototype for Mac OS X, also utilised source code from BSD.

Sun’s Solaris OS also used BSD-derived source code and even MicroSoft Windows has implemented BSD-derived code for its implementation of TCP/IP and command-line networking tools. That’s a pretty impressive resume of organisations using Unix derivatives in their own proprietary software.

It’s very safe then to say that without the contributions of computing pioneer Dennis Ritchie the world as we know it today might not know of, or at the very least, be able to enjoy, the gadgets, gizmos and devices that so many of us find indispensable in our day-to-day lives.

And when you sit down and truly think about it that's one hell of a powerful legacy to leave behind.

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