On this pleasant and cloudy evening soaked in the “music of rain” and accompanied by majestic Ashoka trees peeking from outside of my cubicle windows, I’m incredibly honored to contemplate and write about the whisper-silent, mountain-shaking, and time-stoping life of Dennis MacAlistair Ditchie, nerd-fully known by his user name dmr.
Computer technology has become an indispensable element of our lives. Human ingenuity is at its peak because of it. That old line “nothing is impossible” has imbibed into everyone’s life from toothless grandparents to chubby babies. Why you ask? Because of the powerful toy we have at our disposal. The toy which realizes everything we ask it to. The toy which works tirelessly until we stop it. The toy that never fails. The toy that never gives up. Reminds me of the toy Sherif in my favorite movie Toy Story. Who gave this toy called computer (everything is computer in one way or the other) such an amazing intellect !? It’s those mindful programs that run it. Collection of these programs aimed at performing a definite function is called software. Software is the soul of our toy. Would it not be a blessing to dedicate a moment of our day to pay gratitude to the man who designed the language to write programs? If you read this post to the end and close your eyes, and get the image of Dennis Ritchie in your mind, consider yourself one of the luckiest.
Born on September the 9th, 1941 in Bronxville, New York. His father Alistair E. Ritchie too was a long time Bell Labs scientist. His family moved to Summit, New Jersey where he graduated from Summit High School. He graduated from Harvard University with degrees in physics and applied mathematics.
Ritchie stayed on at Harvard to do graduate work, but while working at the computer centre at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology he decided he was more interested in computing than mathematics. He was recruited by the Sandia National Laboratories, which conducted atomic weapons research and testing. Then in 1967 he was recruited by Bell Labs to work on a new operating system known as Multics. When Bell pulled out of the project in 1969 after four years of development on the grounds that it was proving too complicated and costly, Ritchie and Ken Thompson (one more legendary computer scientist at Bell Labs) began rethinking about the software philosophy and came up with Unix – “a kind of treacherous pun on Multics”, as Ritchie once explained.
Work on Unix began at AT&T’s Bell Laboratories in the late 1960s at a time when computers were generally huge, complex to use and typically overseen by men in white coats who jealously guarded access to them. The idea behind Unix was to design an easily portable system that could be run on the cheaper and smaller “minicomputers” that were in the early stages of development at the time. Ritchie explained that their aim was to produce “a system around which fellowship can form”.
Ritchie and his colleague Ken Thompson, the two researchers assigned to the project, set to work on the core components of the new operating system (known as shell, editor and assembler) and persuaded the Bell Labs patent department to acquire a full-sized DEC computer, known as the PDP7, and run Unix on it.
The first version of Unix had been written in a primitive programming language known as machine code , but it proved cumbersome and slow. So Ritchie designed a new language called C . By the early 1970s five people were working on Unix, and it soon had a long list of commands it could carry out, written in C.
Helped by AT&T’s decision to give the software away free, word about Unix soon spread among the academics who were the principal users of computers. Universities began to train their students in Unix and C, and when they graduated they took this training into industry. In May 1975 Unix was chosen as the operating system for the new computer network that grew into the internet, and it was subsequently adapted for use on many different computers. In the 1990s the rise of the web beyond halls of academia gave it a new lease of life. C had the simplicity of a higher-level language such as Fortran or Pascal and the performance of a lower-level language such as Assembly language. This made both the system software and the applications to thrive in C.
In 1978 Ritchie and his colleague, Brian Kernighan, published The C Programming Language, widely known as “K&R”, which became a bestselling programming textbook, running into two editions and selling millions of copies in 25 languages.
Ritchie was humble, well read and loved to travel. But his passion was work. He worked for 40 years in Bell Labs from 1967 to 2007 with almost thunderous vigor and laser focus. Less concerned about the fame, fortune and applause. Think abut it: servers at the data centers of Google & Amazon run Linux(Unix in a new T-shirt), every embedded system from smart phones to centrifuges at nuclear power plant are powered by Linux core, every OS is derived from Unix in one way or the other, and I am very sure the networking devices(routers) that made the Internet possible is running Unix. And all the IT titans like Apple, Oracle, Cisco, Microsoft, VMWare, Dell, HP etc. are standing on the shoulders of Unix. Just do a math as to how much worth these companies are today. And think about the e-commerce transactions everyday around the world made possible by the Internet, powered by Unix.
All programming languages are essentially C. If you know K&R C, you can learn any language in one or two days. That’s the power of C. Every popular programming language such as Java, C++, Python, C# etc. are derived from C. The cool thing is that the compiler for all languages are written in C, which means without C there’s no new language.
In 1983, Ritchie and Thompson received Turing Award, the Nobel Prize of Computing. And both jointly received National Medal of Technology of 1998 from President Clinton for co-inventing the Unix OS and the C programming language.
Ritchie died on October 12, 2011, at the age of 70 at his home Berkeley Heights, New Jersey. He was unmarried.
Following Ritchie’s death, computer historian Paul E. Ceruzzi stated:
Ritchie was under the radar. His name was not a household name at all, but… if you had a microscope and could look in a computer, you’d see his work everywhere inside.
The Fedora 16 Linux distribution, which was released about a month after he died, was dedicated to his memory. FreeBSD 9.0, released January 12, 2012 was also dedicated in his memory.