Sunday, October 23, 2011

Unsung Heros - Dennis Ritchie

Coming a week after the death of Steve Jobs, it was announced that Dennis Ritchie had passed away at the age of 70.

There is huge media focus on Jobs, quite understandably and rightly so, but Ritchie, in my view, contributed so much more to the world of technology we now see around us today.

To be far, a number of main stream media (MSM) outlets did run with the story, including an obituary in the UK Guardian.

Ritchie joined Bell Labs in 1967 to work on Multics - the pioneering OS started in MIT / Bell Labs in the 60s, taken over by Honeywell in the 70s.

Ritchie joined the Multics programme with Bell at a point of turmoil. Multics was failing to deliver. Bell dropped interest in Multics in 1969, but Ritchie, with fellow "co-conspirators" Thompson, McIlroy and Ossanna knew there was a need for a time-sharing OS to support their programming and language development interests.

During 1969, Thompson started to developed a game called Space Travel on Multics, but with the shut down of the Multics programme he'd lose his game and hence it started to port it to FORTRAN on a GE-635. The game was slow on FORTRAN on the 635 and costly as computers were charged by the hour in those days.

So to keep his gaming interest alive, Thompson got access to a PDP-7 Minicomputer that had, for the time, a good graphics processor and terminal. It's wasn't long before Ritchie and Thompson had programmed the PDP-7 in Assembler to get the raw performance they wanted for Space Travel. In essence, they had to build an OS on the PDP-7 to support the game development. They called this OS Uniplexed Information and Computing Systems (UNICS) as a reference and pun on their ill fated Multics programme. UNICS got shorted to "Unix".

In 1970 Bell Labs got a PDP-11 and Ritchie and the team began to port Unix. By this time the features and stability of the OS was growing. By 1971 Bell Labs had started to see commercial potential in what Ritchie and the team had put together on the PDP-11 and by the end of 71 the first release of Unix was made.

Bell Labs was, essentially, a state monopoly in the Telecom space and was not allowed to commercially profit, so basically, they gave it away free to academic and Government institutions. Given that the period also coincided with the birth of large scale networking and the TCP/IP protocol, it's no co-incidence that Unix became synonymous with the growth of the the Internet.

Once Unix was ported on the PDP-11, Ritchie and the team set about getting a high-level language up and running on Unix. Thompson started to set about developing a FORTRAN port. During this developed Ritchie became influence by earlier work at MIT on a language called BCPL. This became known simply as B. The goal of the compiler was to try and bridge the traditional high-level languages of FORTRAN and COBOL with low level systems capabilities of Assembler.

Through a number of iterations B morphed into C, and the language we know today became pretty much complete by 1973.

Ritchie's work on C culminated in the classic text The C Programme Language, first published in 1978. I purchased a copy while (attempting) to teach myself C in 1984. In fact I still have that copy of the book.

Look at any computing device today, from a mobile phone (iPhone / Android) to Flight Control Computers on a UAV and the operating system running these devices can be directly traced to Ritchie's pioneering work in the late 60s and early 70s.

In terms of the legacy of Ritchie's work on C it's the basis of numerous modern programming languages in wide use today, from C#, Java, JavaScript, to influencing scripting languages like Python, Ruby and Groovy.

Steve Jobs can be certainly credited with the turnaround of Apple and bringing design and aesthetics to consumer technology, but it is Dennis Ritchie we should remember as providing the core foundations for computing today.

Dennis MacAlistair Ritchie, computer scientist, born 9 September 1941; died 12 October 2011.

Dennis Ritchie's Home Page on Bell Labs website.

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