Dennis Ritchie Day
Written by Historian   
Sunday, 30 October 2011

Today we celebrate Dennis Ritchie Day, an idea proposed by Tim O'Reilly and one that we fully support. Ritchie, who died earlier this month, made contributions to computing that now so deeply woven into the fabric that they impact all of us.


225px-dennis_macalistair_ritchie_Dennis MacAlistair Ritchie
September 9, 1941 - October 12, 2011


Tim O'Reilly's initiative was prompted by the fact that Sunday, October 16 had been declared Steve Jobs Day in the State of California. So there is every reason to accord Ritchie, whose work underpinned every aspect of Jobs' achievements, a similar honor.

Rob Pike who worked with Ritcihe for many years in the Unix team at Bell Labs from 1980 onwards and now works for Google broke the news of Ritchie's death.

The following day Posted Pike posted:

I was warmly surprised to see how many people responded to my Google+ post about Dennis Ritchie's untimely passing. His influence on the technical community was vast, and it's gratifying to see it recognized. When Steve Jobs died there was a wide lament - and well-deserved it was - but it's worth noting that the resurgence of Apple depended a great deal on Dennis's work with C and Unix.

He goes on to explain how the C programming language is still very much in use:

The Unix and Linux (and Mac OS X and I think even Windows) kernels are all C programs. The web browsers and major web servers are all in C or C++, and almost all of the rest of the Internet ecosystem is in C or a C-derived language (C++, Java), or a language whose implementation is in C or a C-derived language (Python, Ruby, etc.). C is also a common implementation language for network firmware.

Turning to Unix, Pike points out that it:

in some form or other (I include Linux) runs all the machines at Google's data centers and probably at most other server farms. Most web servers run above Unix kernels; most non-Microsoft web browsers run above Unix kernels in some form, even in many phones.

And speaking of phones, the software that runs the phone network is largely written in C.

Pike then goes on to discuss Ritchie's contribution to today's Internet, how with Steve Johnson he ported Unix to the Interdata:

That meant that if I wrote my program in C, it could run on almost every mini-computer out there. All of a sudden, the coupling between hardware and operating system was broken. Unix was the great equalizer, the driving force of the Nerd Spring that liberated programming from the grip of hardware manufacturers.

The hardware didn't matter any more, since it all ran Unix. And since it didn't matter, hardware fought with other hardware for dominance; the software was a given. Windows obviously played a role in the rise of the x86, but the Unix folks just capitalized on that. Cheap hardware meant cheap Unix installations; we all won. All that network development that started in the mid-80s happened on Unix, because that was the environment where the stuff that really mattered was done. If Unix hadn't been ported to the Interdata, the Internet, if it even existed, would be a very different place today.

When,we scratch through the surface of whatever programming environment we are working in today, wre don't have to dive very deep to uncover the enduring legacy for which we owe Dennis Ritchie, with his colleagues Ken Thompson in the case of Unix and Brian Kernighan for C, a continuing debt of gratitude. 

Finally we now have to remark on the elephant in the room. It must be something that many of us are thinking but not saying for fear of giving offence. 

If Dennis Ritchie hadn't died just after Steve Jobs there would probably have been no suggestion of a day to mark his achievements. We have to admit that it is largely a response to the perhaps over-reaction to Steve Jobs which highlighted the inequality in the public recognition of the people who really make their world work.

Related articles

Dennis Ritchie, co-creator of Unix and C, has died

Ritchie & Thompson

Unix pioneers awarded Japan Prize

The rise of people power - Computer languages in the 70's

Write in C - a tribute to Denis Ritchie


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Last Updated ( Sunday, 30 October 2011 )