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<nettime> RIP: Dennis Ritchie
nettime's avid reader on Fri, 14 Oct 2011 12:53:26 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> RIP: Dennis Ritchie

Dennis Ritchie, Trailblazer in Digital Era, Dies at 70


Dennis M. Ritchie, who helped shape the modern digital era by creating 
software tools that power things as diverse as search engines like Google 
and smartphones, was found dead on Wednesday at his home in Berkeley 
Heights, N.J. He was 70.

Mr. Ritchie, who lived alone, was in frail health in recent years after 
treatment for prostate cancer and heart disease, said his brother Bill.

In the late 1960s and early â70s, working at Bell Labs, Mr. Ritchie made a 
pair of lasting contributions to computer science. He was the principal 
designer of the C programming language and co-developer of the Unix 
operating system, working closely with Ken Thompson, his longtime Bell Labs 

The C programming language, a shorthand of words, numbers and punctuation, 
is still widely used today, and successors like C++ and Java build on the 
ideas, rules and grammar that Mr. Ritchie designed. The Unix operating 
system has similarly had a rich and enduring impact. Its free, open-source 
variant, Linux, powers many of the worldâs data centers, like those at 
Google and Amazon, and its technology serves as the foundation of operating 
systems, like Appleâs iOS, in consumer computing devices.

âThe tools that Dennis built â and their direct descendants â run pretty 
much everything today,â said Brian Kernighan, a computer scientist at 
Princeton University who worked with Mr. Ritchie at Bell Labs.

Those tools were more than inventive bundles of computer code. The C 
language and Unix reflected a point of view, a different philosophy of 
computing than what had come before. In the late â60s and early â70s, 
minicomputers were moving into companies and universities â smaller and at 
a fraction of the price of hulking mainframes.

Minicomputers represented a step in the democratization of computing, and 
Unix and C were designed to open up computing to more people and 
collaborative working styles. Mr. Ritchie, Mr. Thompson and their Bell Labs 
colleagues were making not merely software but, as Mr. Ritchie once put it, 
âa system around which fellowship can form.â

C was designed for systems programmers who wanted to get the fastest 
performance from operating systems, compilers and other programs. âC is not 
a big language â itâs clean, simple, elegant,â Mr. Kernighan said. âIt lets 
you get close to the machine, without getting tied up in the machine.â

Such higher-level languages had earlier been intended mainly to let people 
without a lot of programming skill write programs that could run on 
mainframes. Fortran was for scientists and engineers, while Cobol was for 
business managers.

C, like Unix, was designed mainly to let the growing ranks of professional 
programmers work more productively. And it steadily gained popularity. With 
Mr. Kernighan, Mr. Ritchie wrote a classic text, âThe C Programming 
Language,â also known as âK. & R.â after the authorsâ initials, whose two 
editions, in 1978 and 1988, have sold millions of copies and been 
translated into 25 languages.

Dennis MacAlistair Ritchie was born on Sept. 9, 1941, in Bronxville, N.Y. 
His father, Alistair, was an engineer at Bell Labs, and his mother, Jean 
McGee Ritchie, was a homemaker. When he was a child, the family moved to 
Summit, N.J., where Mr. Ritchie grew up and attended high school. He then 
went to Harvard, where he majored in applied mathematics.

While a graduate student at Harvard, Mr. Ritchie worked at the computer 
center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and became more 
interested in computing than math. He was recruited by the Sandia National 
Laboratories, which conducted weapons research and testing. âBut it was 
nearly 1968,â Mr. Ritchie recalled in an interview in 2001, âand somehow 
making A-bombs for the government didnât seem in tune with the times.â

Mr. Ritchie joined Bell Labs in 1967, and soon began his fruitful 
collaboration with Mr. Thompson on both Unix and the C programming 
language. The pair represented the two different strands of the nascent 
discipline of computer science. Mr. Ritchie came to computing from math, 
while Mr. Thompson came from electrical engineering.

âWe were very complementary,â said Mr. Thompson, who is now an engineer at 
Google. âSometimes personalities clash, and sometimes they meld. It was 
just good with Dennis.â

Besides his brother Bill, of Alexandria, Va., Mr. Ritchie is survived by 
another brother, John, of Newton, Mass., and a sister, Lynn Ritchie of 
Hexham, England.

Mr. Ritchie traveled widely and read voraciously, but friends and family 
members say his main passion was his work. He remained at Bell Labs, 
working on various research projects, until he retired in 2007.

Colleagues who worked with Mr. Ritchie were struck by his code â 
meticulous, clean and concise. His writing, according to Mr. Kernighan, was 
similar. âThere was a remarkable precision to his writing,â Mr. Kernighan 
said, âno extra words, elegant and spare, much like his code.â

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