November 14, 2011 Random Thoughts

Unsung Hero

In the month of October 2011 a legend passed away, though his legacy will live on till the end of civilization itself. He was no soldier, but a hero nevertheless. His work literally gave direction to the future of computers and given our dependency, the future of the entire human race.

His contributions led to the invention of some of the most famous technological masterpieces of our times. I’m sure none of us have escaped the frenzy that swept the world in the form of iphone, iOS and Mac OS X. Alas but, he was still human. The hero fell prey to prostate cancer and died an untimely death.

History shall always remember the father of modern computing. The ice-berg that hid from common eyes, but the roots of who’s work tap into unfathomable depths of the virtual universe. I speak of an unsung hero. I speak of Dennis MacAlistair Ritchie.

Surprised? I’m sure 99 out of every 100 people who read this would be. Dennis M. Ritchie, Dennis Ritchie or simply ‘dmr’ as he was fondly called by his colleagues, was the creator of the C programming language and the co-creator of the UNIX operating system. He passed away a week after Steve Jobs, with an insulting lack of media coverage. We will run out of space and of time, if I were to start even mentioning the names of devices, gadgets, software, applications and services which run on the simple ‘low level’ language which he created and the operating system which he helped build.

Every major player in today’s computer market exists and thrives on what dmr created, and I mean everything from Microsoft to Apple and from Google to the Internet itself!

The pioneer did not believe in gaining fame or earning large fortunes. His UNIX operating system was freely given to universities and anyone who would ask, so that people can learn and develop his dream further. He helped port UNIX to different machines and platforms which now exist in the likes of HP-UX, IBM AIX and Oracle Solaris. Apart from these the Mac OS X, Linux, Android and iOS and even MS-DOS are also UNIX derivatives and fall under the category of ‘UNIX like’ or ‘UNIX based’ operating systems. Every fiber of Internet vibrates with the name of dmr, as does every PC, MAC, smartphone and tablet.

The C Programming Language is sometimes referred to as K&R. Ever wondered what the ‘R’ stands for? The language is probably the only other single most revolutionary creation which rivals the UNIX, and that too is a brainchild of the genius that was Dennis Ritchie. The C programming language today has it’s own family of languages which include C++, C# and even JAVA! Together they dominate a massive 60% market share of the software industry in the world.

It is very difficult to overstate the importance of C and UNIX, even if I was to declare that everything on the web runs on these two things. The browsers which we use are written in C. Web servers are written in C, JAVA or C++, or in Python and Ruby, which again are implemented in C. The UNIX kernel itself is written in C and it pretty much runs the entire Internet. Even the network hardware which runs these programs is almost always written in C.

Ritchie joined Bell Labs in 1967 and the rest, as they say, is History. For his irreplaceable contribution he was awarded the Turing Award in 1983, the IEEE Richard W. Hamming Medal in 1990, the Fellowship of the Computer History Museum in 1997, the National Medal of Technology in 1991, and the Japan Prize in 2011.

During the last years of his life, dmr suffered from prostate cancer and heart disease. He never married and on 12th October 2011, was found dead in his New Jersey home where he lived alone. He was 70 years old.

I do not undermine or in anyway wish to trivialize the contributions made by Steve Jobs. But, if Jobs is a legend in the computer world,  then Dennis MacAlistair Ritchie is it’s God.


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