Unix and C Creator Dennis Ritchie Dies at 70

Dennis Ritchie, the creator of the C programming and co-creator of the Unix operating system has died at the age of 70.

Ritchie’s passing was announced on Google+ by Rob Pike, a Google engineer and former colleague of Ritchie at Bell Labs. “I just heard that, after a long illness, Dennis Ritchie (dmr) died at home this weekend. I have no more information,” Pike said. “I trust there are people here who will appreciate the reach of his contributions and mourn his passing appropriately. He was a quiet and mostly private man, but he was also my friend, colleague, and collaborator, and the world has lost a truly great mind.”

Dennis Ritchie, Unix and C developer

Ritchie, along with fellow Bell Labs computer scientist Ken Thompson, developed the Unix operating system in 1969. The operating system quickly gained popularity within the Labs for its elegance, simplicity, and speed, encouraging programmers to build large projects out of smaller utility programs.

A few years later, the system was rewritten in C, a new programming language Ritchie had invented. C was a compiled language instead of an assembly language, and therefore as long as a particular machine had a C compiler, Unix could run on it with almost no changes. This meant that Unix was one of the first “portable” operating systems. Previously, operating systems were designed specifically for one particular machine.

After Thompson and Ritchie published a paper on Unix in the widely-respected computer science journal “Communications of the ACM,” the popularity of C and Unix took off outside Bell Labs. AT&T, Bell Labs’ parent company, gave it to universities for practically nothing, and budding programmers learned the ropes on it and at Berkeley, modified it extensively, since they had access to the source code. One of the lasting contributions was the addition of TCP/IP, the protocols that make up the Internet.

It wasn’t just computer geeks who took notice of Ritchie’s work. In 1983, both Ritchie and Kernighan were awarded the Turing Prize for their work on Unix, and in 1990, the IEEE awarded them the Richard W. Hamming Medal as well. In 1999 U.S. President Bill Clinton gave them the National Medal of Technology, since Unix servers had powered the first Internet boom that was then in full swing. Finally, the pair was awarded the Japan Prize for Information and Communications for the system.

Dennis Ritchie was born in Bronxville, New York, and graduated from Harvard with degrees in mathematics and physics. He was nowhere near a flamboyant spokesman as Steve Jobs, who also recently passed away. Ritchie apparently preferred understatement and terseness. The definitive tutorial for his C language, titled appropriately enough, “The C Programming Language,” (known affectionately as “K&R”, after its authors, Kernighan and Ritchie) was a relatively thin 272 pages, including the index, in its second edition. “C is not a big language, and it is not well served by a big book,” the introduction read.

Programmers on social networks seemed to recognize the debt they owed to Dennis Ritchie, flooding Twitter, Google+ and others with outpourings of grief. With Web servers, smartphones (both Apple’s iPhone and Android phones are based on some version of Unix) running software inspired by his original creation, it’s fair to say the world would not be where it is today without him.

If you liked this post, check out our infographic looking at Linux over 20 years and our look back on the life of Steve Jobs.