Dennis Ritchie, pioneer of modern computing, dead at 70

Added by on October 13, 2011

Dennis Ritchie, pioneer of modern computing, died aged 70

Dennis M. Ritchie, co-inventor of the Unix operating system and the C programming language, died earlier this week on October 8, as announced by his friend Rob Pike yesterday on Google+. Ritchie died at his home in Murray Hill, New Jersey following a long illness.

Dennis Ritchie co-invented the Unix operating system, along with Ken Thompson, on which the popular mobile platform Android and well-known Linux operating systems are ultimately based. Ritchie is also the inventor of the C programming language, currently the world’s second-most widely used programming language.

Unix continues to power many of the world’s larger computer systems used in governments, banks, and other institutions that securely handle large volumes of information over a period of decades.

The C programming language gained popularity because Ritchie built much of Unix using it. Ritchie invented the programming language based on improvements he made to its predecessor, aptly called B. Richie credits the C programming language for making Unix portable – the ability to use one operating system on a variety of computer hardware – a key driver of the operating system’s adoption. C is now widely used in a variety of computers and devices including personal computers, cellular phones, and computers found in many automobiles.

Ritchie co-authored the definitive book on C called “The C Programming Language“, commonly referred to as K&R in reference to the respective authors’ initials – Kernighan and Ritchie.

Among his main awards, Ritchie and Ken Thompson were jointly awarded the Turning Award, the highest distinction in computer science, in 1983 for their development of general operating system theory and for their work on the Unix operating system.

Ritchie and Thompson received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Clinton in April 1999. The award, granted to inventors and innovators who have made significant contributions to the development of new and important technology, was awarded for their work on co-inventing Unix and the C programming language which together lead to key advances in computer software, hardware, networking, and stimulated growth of the information technology industry. In2011, Ritchie and Thompson were awarded the Japan Prize for Information and Communications.

In an interview, published in C++ Report July/August 2000, Ritchie humbly described his career and contributions to computer science:

” I started out interested in physics, and still maintain an amateur interest in keeping up with what’s happening at its edges. Sometime in college and early grad school, I spent a lot of time in theoretical computer science (Turing machines, complexity theory). Meanwhile I also became more fascinated with real computers and, I suppose, the immediacy of the experience they provided: when you write a program, you can see what it does right away. All of these things connect with each other in interesting ways. Being involved with this sort of activity was what motivated me. Somehow I didn’t think of what I was doing as joining the Software Industry, although, even in 1968, I guess it was.”