Dennis Ritchie at Bell Labs


The generation that blazed the path to modern electronics is reaching the age of a full century. As time moves, we lose more and more of these early pioneers. The person who has influences every single engineer has passed, Dennis Ritchie (September 9, 1941 - October 8, 2011).


Dennis Ritchie, the son of Bell Labs scientist and co-author of "The Design of Switching Circuits", Alistair E. Ritchie. Luckily, Dennis Ritchie followed in his father's footsteps. Along his career path, Dennis Ritchie was in a key development role in designing the Unix operating system. A joint collaboration between several companies, including Dennis Ritchie's Bell Labs, designed an OS called Multics. Due to the size and complexity of the OS, Bell Labs pulled out of the project. Ritchie and his colleagues, most notably Ken Thompson, still saw potential in the OS. They later left Bell to work on the project.



Ken Thompson (left) and Dennis Ritchie (Right) during the 1970s, around the time of UNIX's inception


At Bell Labs in the 1980s


Dennis Ritchie, speaking about the purpose of creating Unix, said, "What we wanted to preserve was not just a good environment in which to do programming, but a system around which a fellowship could form. We knew from experience that the essence of communal computing, as supplied by remote-access, time-shared machines, is not just to type programs into a terminal instead of a keypunch, but to encourage close communication.... UNIX is very simple, it just needs a genius to understand its simplicity."


Later "Unics" was born, being a pun on the original Multics. When Unics could support multiple simultaneous users, it was renamed to Unix. Which was also a pun or phonetic spelling. During the process of development Ritchie made an even more important concept, the "C" programming language.


Ritchie developed the "C" language at Bell Labs in 1969-1973 period. Ritchie pulled the foundation for C comes from an earlier language at Bell Labs called "B." B was based the Basic Combined Programming Language (BCPL), which was used on the Multics project. Ritchie developed C, needing a powerful system for writing the original Unix  kernel.


In 1978 Ritchie, along with Brian Kernighan, published the book, "The C Programming Language." (I have this very book on my shelf, right now.) The book was referred to by C programmers of the day as "K&R" or "K&R C." After subsequent versions of C were, like ANSI C, the popularity soared. Now C is an industry standard. Take a look at today's most leading high-tech device, the iPhone. Developing for the phone requires the use of a great grandchild of K&R C called Objective C.  Ritchie said, talking about his C language, "C is quirky, flawed, and an enormous success."

Ritchie was the head of Lucent Technologies System Software Research Department when he finally retired in 2007 at the age of 66. Four years later, we lose a legend.



Dennis Ritchie's legacy, through Unix and C alone, will continue to affect the world for generations to come. Changing the world is an achievement few are able to gain. Thank you, Mr. Ritchie, for guiding us to the future.




Dennis Ritchie facts:

1983 received the Turing Award for development of generic operating systems theory and the UNIX OS. (Along with Ken Thompson)

1990 received the IEEE Richard W. Hamming Medal for UNIX and the "C" language. (Also with Ken Thompson)

1999 awarded the (1998) National Medal of Technology from President Bill Clinton for co-inventing UNIX and the C language. (Again with Thompson)

2011 received the Japan Prize for Information and Communications for development of UNIX. (W/ Thompson)

Was once quoted as saying "Usenet is a strange place." (so true)



Ken Thompson (left) and Dennis Ritchie (right) receiving the 1998 National Medal of Technology from President Bill Clinton



Read about more past innovators of technology:

George C. Devol, Father of Industrial Robotics

Steve Jobs and his influence

Frank Julian Sprague and the Sprague electric company

Adolphe Chaillet and his light bulb, still burning after 110 years

Charles R. Cross and the first electrical engineering college