It’s been a sad sad sad week – another tech industry giant passed away.
I can not help but feel deeply sad and moved – it’s true Dennis Ritchie is another complete stranger, but his work shaped computing and tech as we know it. He is truly the modest giant whose shoulders we stand on. He is the creator of the C programming language and co-developer of the Unix operating system.
In Dennis Ritchie days, computer hardware was way more diverse then we see today. Industry standards and regulations were not even born. Computers had differences in things we can’t imagine today, things as fundamental as character bit widths (8 bits per byte doesn’t suit you? how about 9? or 7? or how about sometimes 6 and sometimes 12?)
In those days, to code something, you had to do assembly code, in other words custom code written specially for each hardware.
So what did Dennis Ritchie actually do? He comes along and decides to specify a language that will let people write programs that are:
(a) high-level, with structures and functions
(b) portable to just about any kind of hardware
(c) efficient on that hardware so that they’re competitive with handcrafted nonportable custom assembler code on that hardware.
A high-level, portable, efficient systems programming language.
In English words, instead of humans “speaking” machine languages, he made the machines “understand” a high level human language. It made it totally easier for us to tell machines what to do. It is literally like inventing communication between machines and humans in a way that suited humans.
He also created that language in a way that made it possible for all machines to understand it despite their fundamental differences.
The best of it all? It was not a huge performance hit on the oh-so-precious and oh-so-expensive hardware then.
How silly. Everyone knew it couldn’t be done..
Obviously, Dennis Ritchie didn’t know that, after writing the world’s first portable and efficient programming language he went on to help build the world’s first portable operating system, not knowing that was impossible too.
Can you now just imagine the “big deal” Dennis Ritchie was? can you imagine tech without him?
Today, C remains the second most popular programming language in the world (or at least the language in which the second most lines of code have been written), and ushered in C++ and Java; his work on Unix led to, among other things, Linus Torvalds’ Linux.
Ritchie’s desire to avert attention despite his contributions to computing, are among the first things most people who knew him point out. Perhaps for that reason, he was often the first to poke fun at his creations even while recognizing their special place in computing:
“C is quirky, flawed, and an enormous success.”
And, of UNIX:
“It is very simple, it just needs a genius to understand its simplicity.”
Yet my favorite quotes remain :
“Another danger is that commercial pressures of one sort or another will divert the attention of the best thinkers from real innovation to exploitation of the current fad — from prospecting to mining a known lode. These pressures manifest themselves not only in the disappearance of faculty into industry, but also in the conservatism that overtakes those with well-paying investments — intellectual or financial — in a given idea.”
“More than anything else, the greatest danger to good computer science research today may be excessive relevance…As the intensity of research in a particular area increases, so does the impulse to keep its results secret.”
Ritchie is one of the most important, if not under-recognized, engineers of the modern era and to him, i give this meaningless small tribute.