RIP, Dennis Ritchie

Dennis Ritchie died this weekend, aged 70. You may not know who he is, but if you’re reading this, you’re using something he invented.

Dennis Ritchie was, among other things, co-creator of Unix and the C programming language. Even if you run Windows, Windows was heavily influenced by Unix, and a lot of programs you run were written, if not in C, in its successor, C++.

Before Dennis Ritchie and C, the conventional wisdom was that operating systems have to be written in assembly language because there were no high-level languages that were fast enough for operating system work. Forty years ago, Dennis Ritchie’s ideas were revolutionary. And it was those ideas that make it possible for Windows to run on Intel and ARM, for Mac OS to move from the Motorola 68000 to PowerPC, for Nextstep to move from Motorola 68000 to Intel to PowerPC and back to Intel (becoming Mac OS X along the way), and for Linux to run on every 32-bit CPU on the planet. Today we take portability for granted, but in the late 1960s when Ritchie and his colleagues were trying to figure out what came after Multics, it was unheard of. A lot of things get called revolutionary that are, at most, better described as disruptive, but if anything, calling Dennis Ritchie’s work at Bell Labs revolutionary is an understatement.

Bell Labs bought a DEC PDP-11 on the promise that Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson would use it to develop a word processor. Along the way, they created, among other things, Unix and C. I have no idea if they ever got around to developing the word processor. At this point, I’m sure nobody knows nor cares, because we owe the very foundations of modern computing to their distraction.

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