Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie invented Unix and C and many other things that are less well known, including pioneering chess programs and inventing other languages. They mostly did it for fun, to prove it could be done, and to provide better tools than were available. Now for their efforts they have been awarded the $600,000 2011 Japan Prize for Information and Communications.
Ken Thompson (left) and Dennis Ritchie (right)
Previous winners from the world of computer science are few but include Marvin Minsky (1990), Vint Cerf (2008) and Robert Kahn (2008).
Ritchie and Thompson were lucky enough to find themselves working at Bell Labs (now owned by Alcatel-Lucent) at a time when they could acquire a mini-computer and spend time creating software for it. The software that they created went on to become Unix which in turn inspired Linux. They created Unix simply because minicomputers of the time didn't come with good operating systems as standard but instead with crude systems software that provided access to a disk drive, i.e. a DOS.
The pair decided that if they were to get the best out of their "personal" minicomputer it had to have a better and more powerful operating system - the result was Unix but first they needed a language to write the operating system in and so they "had to" invent C.
It seems amazing by today's standards that they needed to invent a language before getting on with the main task of writing an operating system but things were that primitive. It also seems amazing that C, probably the most influential language today, came about as just a tool created on the way to a larger goal.
Thompson and Ritchie retired from Bell labs some years ago but Thompson now works at Google on another programming language that you might have heard of, Go!
Ritchie & Thompson
Getting started with Google's Go
Go with Google - Yet Another Language!