Dennis Ritchie: Plan C

Last week the computer world was shaken by the death of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.  A giant and a visionary with an eye for design and usability.  The original iMac was a revolutionary in-your-face design, its successor, like the MacBooks, a lesson in hard stylish simplicity.  Until the iPhone, smartphones were business tools with limited and specialised functionality.  Similarly, tablet computers had a narrow appeal outside technical and industrial environments until the iPad came along and reinvented the tablet as a consumer product.

Steve Jobs was responsible for all that.  Well, mostly.  Whilst he was a giant, he was standing on the shoulders of another, quieter giant: Dennis Ritchie.

Outside the world of computer programming few people will have heard of him.  His death today will be overshadowed by that of Jobs, despite the fact that it’s arguable that Ritchie has had a much more significant impact on the world of computing.  The programming language ‘C’, probably the first modern programming language, was developed by Ritchie.  As if that wasn’t enough he developed the Unix operating system along with Bell Labs colleague Ken Thompson.  I’m writing this blog on a laptop running Ubuntu Linux, a descendant of that original Unix box.

C was the first ‘proper’ programming I learned and I’ve never looked back.  I still can’t believe my luck that I work as a programmer and some of it was was due to lessons learned from Ritchie’s book ‘The C Programming Language’, which still sits on my bookshelf.

I’m not alone in benefiting from Ritchie’s creation.  The Mac’s OS X is a Unix variant, as is Android that sits on smartphones and tablets, and the descendants of the C language run on so many consumer devices that it’s hard to think of another language that had so much impact on computing.  A multi-platform language, it even compiles and runs on Windows machines.

Along with that of Ada Lovelace and Alan Turing, Dennis Ritchie’s legacy will be with us for a long time, long after the consumer electronics world has moved on from Apple’s pretty toys.

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