Dennis Ritchie

By: Chris Spurgeon
September 9, 2013

ritchie

The tsunami of obits and eulogies for Steve Jobs eclipsed reports of the passing a few days later of someone who did infinitely more to shape the world of computers: DENNIS RITCHIE (1941–2011), inventor of the C programming language. The computer you’re using to read this — be it Mac or PC — has an operating system written in C, or one of the languages based on it. C is controlling your thermostat, your microwave, your uncle’s pacemaker. Your car runs on C as surely as it runs on gasoline. There’s half a million lines of C code on Mars right now, controlling the Curiosity rover.

C is an arcane incantation — incomprehensible to the uninitiated, challenging to acolytes, and a source of astonishing power to skilled wizards. To get a sense of it, here’s a simple C program which accepts a list of words and prints them back out…

#include

int main(int argc, char *argv[])
{
int i = 0;

for(i = 1; i < argc; i++) { printf("arg %d: %s\n", i, argv[i]); } return 0; }

Of such seeming gibberish is the modern world made.

There’s a scene at the end of The Matrix in which Neo suddenly sees the infinite computer programs behind his everyday (simulated) world. If anyone earned the right to experience something like that in real life, it was Dennis Ritchie. I like to think of him walking down a city street, surrounded by cars and parking meters and traffic lights and cellphones and laptops and electronic billboards and wristwatches, all speaking his language.

***

On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Paul Goodman, Otis Redding.

READ MORE about members of the Anti-Anti-Utopian Generation (1934-43).

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What do you think?

  1. His editor wanted to cut “If anyone earned the right to experience something like that in real life, it was Dennis Ritchie,” but Chris *held the line*, if you will. Now I think he was right, and his editor (me) wrong.

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