Remembering NJ's Own Computing Pioneer Dennis Ritchie


Last week the New Jersey computing community lost one of its own, Dennis Ritchie, one of the inventors of UNIX and the C programming language. Ritchie, born in Bronxville, N.Y., lived and worked most of his life in N.J. As a child he moved to Summit and then attended Summit High School.

As Ritchie explained on his home page at the Bell Labs website, he began his career in 1967, following in the footsteps of his father, Alistair Ritchie, at the Computing Sciences Research Center of Bell Labs (Murray Hill, N.J.). He ended it at Alcatel-Lucent, remaining in the same office through multiple changes of employer as Bell Labs evolved.

Ritchie was important to computing for two reasons. First, he and Ken Thompson created the UNIX operating system. He demonstrated that UNIX could be ported to multiple computers, laying the groundwork for the widespread growth of the operating system. On his home page, Ritchie said, “The Seventh Edition version from the Bell Labs research group was the basis for commercial Unix System V and also for the Unix BSD distributions from the University of California at Berkeley.”

Second, in the process of developing UNIX, Ritchie “added data types and new syntax to Thompson’s B language, thus producing the new language C.” C, of course, was the foundation for the portability of UNIX but was widely used in many other contexts and has many successors, including C+ and C++.

The New York Timessummed up Ritchie’s contribution by saying that UNIX’s “free, open-source variant, Linux, powers many of the world’s data centers, like those at Google and Amazon, and its technology serves as the foundation of operating systems, like Apple’s iOS, in consumer computing devices.”

On, John Biggs discussed Ritchie’s contribution, noting that “The key to UNIX was the concept of sharing. The OS was begun in 1969 as a reaction to Bell Labs shutting down Thompson and Ritchie’s favorite operating system, Multics. With the cooperation of multiple organizations including MIT, a group of four New Jersey Bell Labs programmers began working on a neglected PDP-7 machine where they ported the Space Travel game and began to build out a file system in order to save games. Slowly, a command structure that anyone familiar with modern Linux would understand accreted around this file system.”

At the end of his career, Ritchie was managing a small group of researchers exploring distributed operating systems, languages and routing/switching hardware. He retired in 2007.

Ritchie was born in 1941 and later received bachelor’s and advanced degrees from Harvard. As an undergraduate he concentrated on physics and as a graduate student on applied mathematics. He said his undergraduate experience convinced him he was not smart enough to be a physicist and that he liked computers. Further, graduate school “convinced me that I was not smart enough to be an expert in the theory of algorithms and also that I liked procedural languages better than functional ones.” Ritchie won numerous awards and published many papers, all of which are still listed on his home page.

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