Thank You to Dennis Ritchie, Without Whom None of This Would Be Here

Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson

Ritchie is standing; Thompson is sitting. They are both inventing Unix.Bell Labs

This morning the news came over the internet: Dennis Ritchie has died.

Dr. Ritchie doesn't have the mainstream adoring following of Steve Jobs, but he can take considerably more credit for the creation, and even the aesthetics, of the computer world we live in. It's almost impossible to find a personal computing product or paradigm that doesn't owe a direct debt to Ritchie.

At Bell Labs in the heady 1970s, Dennis Ritchie created the C programming language and co-developed the Unix operating system. Before C and Unix came along, the computer world was fragmented in a way that's hard to imagine -- there was no such thing as software written to run on a variety of computers. Everything was custom-coded for its particular platform, and every platform had wildly different standards for such fundamental things as "how big is a byte?"

Everything we've got -- Internet servers, telephone backbones, the microprocessor in the keyboard I'm using to type this -- emanates from Ritchie's work. You are reading this on a Drupal-powered web site; Drupal is written in PHP, which in turn is written in C. (Unless you printed out the page on a printer whose internals were coded in C.) Here, take a look at this table of what programming languages are used to implement popular software. Note how heavily populated are the C column and, next to it, the column for C++, which was developed as an enhanced C.

Lest his seem like a dry, behind--the-scenes legacy, I will quote in full Dennis Ritchie's 1994 "anti-foreword" to the Unix-Haters' Handbook. Ritchie was right.