I’m staggered by the enormous discrepancy in news coverage here, with the media still eulogizing Steve Jobs after a week and a half, Dennis Ritchie passes away, and receives hardly a blip.
How can this be? The man was a giant in the field. He was one of the inventors of C, which became the most successful programming language, remains extremely popular after four decades, and was a direct ancestor to many of the most used languages of the present day. It’s difficult to overstate its impact; nearly all of the software you encounter today — on PCs, on servers, in embedded systems, or anywhere — was written in C or a language that traces back to C. It was Ritchie who decided on one of the keys to C’s success, its “portable assembly” aspect: It had to let you get close to the metal, while still abstracting away the architecture’s particulars. Another aspect to C’s success was its excellent manual written by Ritchie and Brian Kernighan, commonly called simply “K&R”: short, clear, and comprehensive; information rich yet simple writing; it set a standard that few computer texts come close to reaching.
He was a father of Unix, which has led to more of today’s operating systems than you can shake a stick at. The first great wave of webservers was on Solaris and other System V variants. There’s a BSD Unix sitting inside MacOSX and iPhoneOS. Richard Stallman modeled his GNU project on Unix, and Linus Torvalds’ Linux kernel was a clone of Unix’s — and the second great wave of webservers was build on these. Nearly all of the servers you encounter online run operating systems using Ritchie’s designs. And every Android smartphone as well. How is it that one OS family can span such a range? It was Ritchie who pushed for Unix to be rewritten to have a portable core for the bulk of the OS, with the hardware-specific bits isolated away for easy migration to new machines. No operating system had ever done this; it let Unix escape the PDP, and escape it did.
News media be damned. I feel Ritchie’s passing much more keenly than Jobs’. He wasn’t showy, but his influence was legion.