Linus Torvalds once said, in reference to the development of Linux, that he “had hoisted [himself] up on the shoulders of giants.” Among those giants, Dennis Ritchie (aka dmr) was likely the tallest. Ritchie, the creator of the C programming language and co-developer of the Unix operating system passed away on October 8 at the age of 70, leaving a legacy that casts a very long shadow.
I got my start with technology because of Ritchie’s work on the Unix GENIE time-share system. It made it possible for my high school to time-share the PDP-11 at SUNY-Stony Brook—the same model computer that Dennis Ritchie, Kenneth Thompson and their team used to create Unix—and for me to write my first lines of code on a DECwriter II TTY terminal.
But Ritchie’s C is even more important, in many ways, than Unix. It is the fundamental building block upon which much of what we consider to be the modern world was built.
By creating C, Ritchie gave birth to the concept of open systems. C was developed so they could port Unix to any computer, and so that programs written on one platform (and the skills used to develop them) could be easily transferred to another.
In that way, Ritchie has shaped our world in much more fundamental ways than Steve Jobs or Bill Gates have. What sets him apart from them is that he did it all not in a quest for wealth or fame, but just out of intellectual curiosity. Unix and C were the product of pure research—research that started as a side-project using equipment bought based on a promise that Ritchie and Thompson would develop a word processor.
Imagine what the world would be like if they had just stuck to that promise. What would your life be like without C or Unix? When was the first time your life was touched by dmr’s work?