Friday, October 14, 2011

Dennis Ritchie, 1941 - 2011

I have no intention of turning this blog into an obituaries column, and no desire to see "celebrity deaths come in threes" spill over into the tech world, but having noted the passing of Steve Jobs I feel obliged to note the passing of Dennis Ritchie as well.

You may or may not have heard of him before.  It took the major news outlets a while to pick up the story, and even then it wasn't front page.  For hours the main public source was colleague Rob Pike's Google+ page.  That's not too surprising.  CEO of major corporations and eminent computer scientist are two completely different gigs.  Nonetheless, Ritchie had as profound an effect on the Web As We Know It as anyone else, even though his groundbreaking work predates the web by a good measure.

It's fair to say that the web as we know it would not exist if not for Unix.  The first web server ran on NeXTSTEP,  which traces its roots to Unix [and, in fact, NeXT was run by the late Steve Jobs -- tech is a small world at times -- D.H. Nov 2018].  A huge number of present-day web servers, large and small, run on Linux/GNU which, even though the Linux kernel was developed from scratch and GNU stands for "GNU's Not Unix", provide an environment that's firmly in the Unix lineage.  The HTTP protocol the web runs on has its roots in the older internet protocols and belongs to a school of development in which Unix played a major role.

Ritchie was one of the original developers of Unix.

The Unix operating system, the Linux kernel, many of the GNU tools and countless other useful things (and at least one lame hack) are written in the C language, which is also one of the bases for C++, C#, Objective C and Java, among others.  All in all, C and its descendants account for a large chunk of the software that makes the web run, and for years, before the ANSI C standard, the de facto standard for the language was a book universally called "K&R" after its authors, Brian Kernighan and Dennis Ritchie.  That flavor of the language is still called "K&R C".

Ritchie continued to do significant work throughout his life and won various high honors, including the Association for Computing Machinery's top honor, the Turing award, and the US National Medal of Technology.  He was head of the Lucent Technologies System Software Research Department when he retired in 2007.  He may not have been a cultural icon, but in the world of software geekery he cast a long shadow.


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