Dennis Ritchie

Dennis Ritchie has died after a long illness. He was 70; two years younger than when my own father died.

When I joined Bell Labs in 1994 I was very excited that I would be on the sysadmin team that served computer scientists such as Dennis Ritchie. Many of my favorite textbooks were written by people that would now be my users. On my first day, however, I was told that I shouldn't ask Dennis, or anyone, to autograph a book: they didn't like that.

This was disappointing. I had many books I had hoped to get autographed. None more than my original copy of The C Programming Language, also known as "The K&R Book".

My copy of K&R was well-used and worn. I had read it over and over. In high school they taught Pascal but I knew that C was must more interesting and taught myself the language. C had only recently escaped the labs and there weren't many resources for learning it. I taught myself it as much as I could considering I was in high school and had no access to a computer powerful enough to run a C compiler. I was surrounded by 8-bit machines (Apple II, Commodore 64, Atari 800).

I collected languages like other kids collected baseball cards. C was beautiful, simple, power, and expressive. It was the opposite of the languages I learned before it: BASIC [Apple, C-64, TI-99/4A, GW-Basic, Simon's], Pascal (UCSD P-System, Tubro, assembly languages (6502, 68000) plus odd languages like COMAL. It was like "the perfect assembly language". If you knew machine code / assembly language you appreciated C infinitely more... in ways I can't express in words.

It was an exercise in self-control that when I left Bell Labs seven years later none of those books were autographed.

I'll close with one anecdote and one thought.

The anecdote...

One day I was in my boss's office. The phone rang, he answered it. He listened for a moment and then replied, "Yes, I'll send one right away." He hung up and turned to me to say, "Normally when a user calls to say that their monitor isn't working I ask the usual questions about whether or not it is plugged in, connected right, and so on. But since that call came from the inventor of C and Unix, I think we can just send him a new monitor." We had a good laugh.

The thought...

I should have fucking asked him for his autograph.


Posted by Tom Limoncelli in Misc

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5 Comments | Leave a comment

I understand your pain of not getting those books autographed. But most of my requests have been answered so far, including one by yourself.

Thanks to you for sharing this. I'm sad and jealous simultaneously but in a good way.

I'm really sad at his passing. When I think back to the years of working at Bell Labs Research with him, the thing I remember most was that he was a really nice guy--at least in all of my interactions with him.

Dr.Dennis MacAlistair Ritchie, creator of the C programming language, and co-author of the book by the same name – much loved by C programmers the world over, sadly passed away last weekend.

Before retiring in 2007, Ritchie followed in his father’s footsteps by joining Bell Labs in 1967, starting a career that spanned 40 years in the field of computer science. There he contributed to the Multics project (the forerunner of Unix) and a compiler for the BCPL language, then eventually co-created the Unix operating system with Ken Thompson. During his work on Unix, Ritchie created the C Programming Language, which is now a formal ANSI and ISO standard, and is one of the most widely, used programming languages of all time, currently only equaled by James Gosling’s Java.

The world of computing owes a great debt of gratitude to Dennis Ritchie, without whom there might have been no Unix, and thus no Mac OS X or GNU/Linux. In fact the computing landscape might have been very different indeed, given that most of the world’s software is written in C. For any man to make such a contribution is a magnificent achievement, but Richie was also a kind and humble man.

Without Dennis Ritchies work on Unix back in the 70′, there won’t be any iPhone today, nor iMac.

C and UNIX are two of the biggest pillars of Computer Science.

Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India
E-mail: [email protected]

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