Dennis MacAlistair Ritchie, better known as ‘dmr’ (for his email address) at Bell Labs passed away at the age of 70. He was a legendary computer scientist, a man whose contribution is intangibly present in everything we do with computers today. If it were not for him and the C programming language, the world of computer programming would have taken a completely different path. We would not have the flexible programming we enjoy today.
Dennis Ritchie passed away from ill health and news of his death first appeared through Robert Pike’s Google+ page.
Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson were the duo, famous for creating UNIX and the C programming language. Almost every programmer writes his first code in C and in the course of doing so comes across the “Kernighan and Ritchie” book on C. The book is nearly 30 years old (first published in 1978), but the lessons are as fresh today, as they were three decades ago. The book has been reprinted ever since, maintaining the same flavor. The thickness of the book will surprise you. However, people have claimed to find more useful things in the book than other bestsellers. Nevertheless, this is not what makes C legendary.
So, what is so great about the C language?
Before the birth of the C language, there was diversity in hardware. Every hardware device had its own fancy instruction set and you had to write assembly code following them. There was absolutely no portability of programs (programs written in one computing device would not on another).
The C language (Read Ritchie) unified that hardware world, making it possible to write portable programs that would be hardware agnostic. A C compiler was created for all hardware and this made it possible for a C code to run seamlessly on just about any device with a C compiler (remotely similar to the java virtual machine of today).
Just when people said it could not be done, he went ahead and did it. It was so simple, yet so elegant. Dennis Ritchie gave his contemporary programmers, a language that was structured, high level and could create system programs. Above all, he freed the programming language from the bonds of being the brainchild of academics or any other bureaucratic setup. This was an independent programming language, coming from a seasoned programmer.
This portability of the C language allowed him to rewrite the UNIX kernel in C and make use of all features of the then new, DEC PDP-11. Finally, he developed a portable operating system that would work across hardware, the operating system we know as UNIX today.
Dennis Ritchie and the DARPA Project
When Dennis and Ken started working together on the UNIX OS, it was a head-turner. The ARPA (Advanced Research Project Agency) took notice of them. ARPA was so impressed by the UNIX OS, they became their client eventually and Ritchie had never looked back ever since. The birth of the UNIX OS was streamlined with the birth of the Internet and this is regarded as one of the most beautiful phases of Bell Labs.
Why do people love C even today?
Dennis Ritchie was the recipient of the prestigious Turing Award and the National Medal of Technology. He explained the popularity of C in an interview, held in August 2000 where the three greatest contributors to programming (Dennis Ritchie, Bjarne Stroustrup, and James Gosling) came together.
This has always been a bit of a mystery to me to understand in any kind of detail. Obviously the use of C was during early times (meaning the ’70s and much of the ’80s) considerably encouraged by its use as the lingua franca of Unix during the period that Unix was growing in the research and academic community, and then when Unix was taken up as the software basis for the workstation industry of the ’80s. This in turn had to do in part with the non-political nature of C and UNIX (not tied to a power in computer hardware until post-1984). There were also technical and semi-technical aspects: the language turned out to be well-placed both for describing things at a high enough level so that portability across hardware was feasible, but simple enough in its requirements to make it cheap to implement.
The C family of programming languages was a major contribution to the world of programming. It defined the approach to programming that a number of languages use as an inherent standard today.
In the meanwhile, at Bell Labs
Bell Labs President Jeong Kim confirmed his death and has sent an email to employees saying,
Dennis was well loved by his colleagues at Bell Labs, and will be greatly missed. He was truly an inspiration to all of us, not just for his many accomplishments, but because of who he was as a friend, an inventor, and a humble and gracious man.
What happens next?
As time passes, hardware evolves, programming languages evolve and so do the people who write those programs. One can imagine how difficult it is for a programming language to hold ground for decades. The C language has done it consistently and will stay here or a long time. The new standard for C, C11 came out a few days ago marking another milestone for the language.
Dennis Ritchie is no more here to see what is in store for C. May his soul rest in peace.