Friday, October 14, 2011

Dennis Ritchie -- the godfather of modern programming languages

Dennis Ritchie passed away on October 8, at age 70. Most people will say "huh," upon hearing his name. I'd argue he had a much greater influence on modern computing than the late Steve Jobs.

He developed C, the most widely used programming language in the world, while working at Bell Laboratories in the late 60's. He still has a home page at Bell Labs. While originally written to be used to create the Unix operating system (which Ritchie also developed, along with Ken Thompson), C is now used for writing software for computers, embedded devices, smart appliances, cellphones, consumer goods - everything from operating systems to applications to device drivers to...well, you name it. The beauty of C is that it can be compiled for any number of different platforms.

C gave rise to an number of variations and spin offs - C+, C++ (I'm not making this up) as well as directly and indirectly influencing the structure and syntax of a host of other modern programming languages, such as Java, PHP, Python, Perl, to name but a few. Without the C programming language there may well have been no Apple, much less iPhone. Steve Jobs would probably have been selling cars for a living.

Ritchie was the author (along with Brian Kerighan) of The C Programming Language (aka "K & R"), a thin volume first published in 1978 which is still in use. My youngest (the computer science major) used K & R as a textbook.

The Unix operating system (another of Dr Ritchie's great contributions) has also given rise to a number of offspring, most notably Linux, and is the underlying core OS of the Mac OS X operating system.

Dr Ritchie was honored numerous times for his advancements in the field of computing. He died after a prolonged illness - a true giant of our times.

Rest in peace, sir.

Bonus for the ubergeek: a paper Ritchie wrote a while back entitled The Development of the C Language. The photo above (circa 1972) is of Dennis Ritchie (standing) with Ken Thompson seated at the keyboard of a PDP-11.

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