Saturday, October 15, 2011

Dennis Ritchie, R.I.P

Dennis Ritchie (1941-2011) died on October 12 at age 70. He is an honored member of the tribe of computer programmers, indeed a very visible member of it, but, such is that tribe, he is largely only known within the fold. He is the designer of the C programming language and co-developer (with Ken Thompson) of the UNIX operating system.

Other than assembly languages, I’ve written programs in Basic, Cobol, C, C++, and Pascal. Of these my great favorite was and is Pascal, written by the Swiss computer scientist Niklaus Emil Wirth, who is still alive; at 77 he is closer to me in age, two years my senior. Ritchie, in our view, was a mere youngster. Pascal of which the DOD’s Ada is an extension, is a very strict, orderly language—while C and C++ are both more free and flexible. I always liked the wordy formalities of Pascal—perhaps because I am a traditionalist. But writing in C or its extensions became obligatory in order to write fundamental code for Windows. I made the transition easily enough—and in large part because C permits you, if you want to, to maintain a Pascal-like structure in your coding. It takes a lot less keying, but it is more difficult, later on, to read. And I appreciated that flexibility.

Just recently, on Ghulf Genes, I’ve had occasion to mention Frederick Brooks’ book, The Mythical Man-Month, in the context of praising programming as a preeminent practice of creativity (link). Frederick Brooks was the developer-in-chief of IBM’s OS/360 operating system, thus another prominent figure in the clan. And Dennis Ritchie, who wrote both an operating system that underlies the Internet and probably the leading computer language, was, you can be sure, one of the great creative figures of our time—albeit at a level of near-invisible humility which, no doubt, made his entry through the Pearly Gate as swift and clean and sure as the code we write today in C and its descendants, not least among them Java, the programming language of the Internet.

No comments:

Post a Comment