I’ve been meaning to remark on the passing of Dennis Ritchie but have been incredibly busy at work. The irony is unlike Steve Jobs who touched on my career and my life only glancingly, Ritchie’s contributions in the former of the C programming language and co-inventing Unix are pretty critical pre-conditions for most of what I’ve been doing professionally and out of enthusiasm for well over a decade.
When I was in college, access to and usage of the limited number of Unix workstations on campus were of mythic proportions. All of my friends and my co-workers within the school’s Technology Services enjoyed noodling around with PCs of different strips. Gaining entrance to the access-limited Unix labs and setting at the quietly humming machines with their remarkably large and high resolution displays for that time was something else altogether.
Those machines in no way felt like toys. To a one they were all networked together and connected via fast links to the Internet. What you had to bash and cobble together on your own PC to get barely functioning was a given in terms of horse power and network connectivity with these machines.
That sense of awe, the invitation to explore that is woven into my earliest experiences of Unix deeply informs my relationship with Linux, its spiritual descendant. I still experience a subtle frisson of delight when exercising root privileges on any of my Linux boxen for the way it takes me back to those almost furtive trips into the Unix labs at school.
The C programming language holds a similar place in my personal pantheon. Almost every programming language with which I have more than a passing fluency can be described as C-like. I have only worked directly with C for limited stints over the years, experiences too few and far between to transform the experience from mysterious into the quotidian. I realize that rationally it is a bit silly but just the age and application of C seem to beg a certain veneration that few if any subsequent languages have yet to achieve.
The contrast between the coverage of Jobs’ passing and Ritchie’s is pretty extreme. The temptation to read much into the difference is great but I think easily explained. By all accounts Ritchie was a very quiet and private person. Unlike Jobs, you don’t have to have a sense of Ritchie’s personality to appreciate his contribution to modern computing. The technical merits of C, Unix and his collaboration with Kernighan in the form of The C Programming Language, or simply K&R, speak for themselves.
If you are unfamiliar with Dennis Ritchie’s work, Joe “zonker” Brockmeier posted an excellent recollection at ReadWriteWeb.