Software pioneer Dennis Ritchie, the inventor of the C programming language and key figure in the establishment of the founding principles of modern computer operating systems, died Wednesday after a long illness at the age of 70.
The son of Bell Labs scientist and switching circuit pioneer Alistair E. Ritchie, Ritchie joined Bell Labs in 1967, several years after graduating from Harvard with degrees in physics and applied mathematics. He also earned his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1968. It was at the Bell Labs Computing Sciences Research Center that Ritchie forged a career that included the creation of C, still perhaps the strongest pillar of application and operating system development today, and with Ken Thompson, the development of the UNIX operating system.
Ritchie’s partnerships with Ken Thompson and Brian Kernighan defined the most productive and influential part of his groundbreaking career. With Kerrighan, Ritchie co-authored The C Programming Language, considered the Bible of C. The book is commonly referred to simply as K&R, in reference to its authors.
But it was the collaboration with Thompson on the design of UNIX as a portable, multi-tasking, multi-user—and ultimately wildly influential—operating system that earned Ritchie perhaps his most lasting fame in the world of computing.
UNIX, originally a “programmer’s workbench” that was re-coded in C in the early 1970s, became a widely used operating system in devices and computers ranging from cell phones to enterprise servers as the architecture’s flexibility, openness, and the ease of adding new software tools to the base UNIX kernel attracted users in academia and industry. The UNIX client-server model was also instrumental in the evolution of computing from stand-alone machines to massively networked computing environments, and Ritchie’s work was essential to the development of the biggest computer network of them all, the Internet.
Ritchie and Thompson were together honored with numerous awards for their work on UNIX and the C programming language, including the Turing Award in 1983, the IEEE Richard W. Hamming Medal in 1990, the U.S. National Medal of Technology in 1999, and the Japan Prize for Information and Communications in 2011.
Ritchie also cultivated a lifestyle that broke sharply from the 9-to-5, button-down look associated with the 1950s-era computer industry. Long-haired and bearded, Ritchie was “famously more owl than lark,” according to ZDNet, “start[ing] work at midday in his industry-standard chaotic office, emerging late in the evening to go home and carry on working through to the small hours at the end of a leased line connected to the Bell Labs computers.”
Bell Labs was of course spun off by AT&T to form Lucent Technologies, where Ritchie worked as the head of Lucent Technology Systems’ software research department through the company’s merger with Alcatel in 2006, finally retiring from Alcatel-Lucent in 2007.