Guest Post by Fred Douglis, EMC Consultant Software Engineer
When I heard the news about the recent passing of Dennis Ritchie, inventor of the C programming language and co-inventor of the UNIX operating system, I felt an acute sadness I had not anticipated. Part of my reaction was no doubt due to the unexpected nature of the news: Unlike Steve Jobs, whose poor health we had known about for several years, Dennis had kept his illness quiet. Part was because it reminded me of my encounters with Dennis, and his colleagues, many years ago.
My first exposure to the great AT&T Bell Labs was rather unusual. While in high school in central NJ, I used to frequent a chess club in Westfield, a town not too far from Bell Labs. One day, perhaps around 1978, I played in a chess tournament and found an odd scene: A man had a phone plugged into some enormous contraption, along with a keyboard and printer. A computer modem was nothing new to me, but this setup didn’t belong at a chess tournament, did it?
It turned out that Ken Thompson had turned his attention from operating systems (UNIX) to computer chess. I played his program, called Belle. I can’t say for sure but I think I might even have beaten it. A friend and I commented about our interest in computers, and Ken asked if we might like to see the lab where Belle was actually doing its thing. He drove us over to Murray Hill and showed us around Bell Labs; we were like kids in a candy store.
In college, I first encountered both a UNIX system and the C programming language. Imagine my surprise when I realized that the “ken” account that came by default on every UNIX system at the time belonged to the same person who’d shown my friend and me around Bell Labs!
With C, I realized that programming was something that could be enjoyable, challenging and even elegant — something I would never have associated with the many other languages I’d dabbled with by then. BASIC? Pascal? APL? Hmph.
My next exposure to Bell Labs, and to Dennis, came quite a few years later. I had earned a Ph.D. and was interviewing at Bell Labs, and Dennis was my host. He was remarkably friendly, quiet and bright. Even though I felt I should have been intimidated, his demeanor just wouldn’t allow it. In addition, I interviewed with a set of “UNIX Hall of Fame” dignitaries. It was like the stories of ancient Greece in which the deities disguised themselves and mingled among the masses.
I turned down the opportunity to work with Dennis and the rest of the computer science research center at the time. In hindsight, this was a mistake and I joined Bell Labs a few years later, though in a different organization. I saw Dennis occasionally over the next year or two before we went to different halves of the AT&T-Lucent split. In recent years, I was a bit curious about what had become of him since so many of the other original UNIX crowd had moved on to Google or other pursuits.
Unfortunately, as the computer science field matures, it’s inevitable that we’ll experience such losses with increasing frequency. We have already lost a few other great researchers, and some well ahead of their time (such as Jim Gray of Microsoft Research, Jay Lepreau of the University of Utah and Mark Weiser of Xerox PARC). And, of course, we lost Steve Jobs, not a researcher but the consummate entrepreneur.
While Dennis Ritchie may not have been the “household name” that Jobs was, his impact was no less great. Through his contributions to UNIX and C, among others, Ritchie was a guiding light for an entire field, and he will be missed.