threnody in c for dennis ritchie

Having recently devoted so much column space eulogizing, first, the not-surprising retirement, and, subsequently, the surprising passing of Steve Jobs, I feel a little reluctant to so quickly again spend time here singing the praises of a dead computer ne

Having recently devoted so much column space eulogizing, first, the not-surprising retirement, and, subsequently, the surprising passing of Steve Jobs, I feel a little reluctant to so quickly again spend time here singing the praises of a dead computer nerd.

But, even at the risk of self-indulgence, I cannot allow the demise of a technological genius of the scale of Dennis Ritchie to pass without noted and unlamented.

I very much expect the vast majority of the people reading this to respond to the above sentence with a quizzical, “Dennis who?” But, trust me, you owe much more than you know to the accomplishments of this invisible giant of the computer age.

With no disrespect at all intended, Steve Jobs can be described as one of the great glamour-pusses of the computer age – handsome, mercurial and charismatic, and with a career that swung from heady heights to deep lows, and ended in a blaze of world success and bodily failure.

Dennis Ritchie had none of that crowd appeal or drama about him. He was just an average-looking nerdy guy, with a career of consistent success, and a personal life lived out of the range of interest of the public press.

If he had highs and lows, he had them in private. And when he died, sadly, he died at home alone.

But without him, all the fuss and bother of Steve Jobs

or of Job’s nemesis/buddy Bill Gates – would have happened very much differently, or, more probably, not have happened at all.

What Dennis Ritchie did was design the C programming language, and co-develop, with his long-time tech-buddy Ken Thompson, the Unix operating system.

To the computationally innocent, that may sound like a lot of inconsequential gobbledygook; but, arcane as they may sound, those two things are now fundamental to almost everyone’s electronic communications experience the world over.

Thr Unix and C developments are beautiful examples if how technological innovation really works: A couple of nerds somewhere are given time and material to work on a trivial-seeming problem, and end up creating a solution to a much larger undertaking nobody had envisioned yet.

Unix, though still just a geek term to most people, is the computer operating system that now makes the world if the internet go around.

It is on server-computers running some brand or other of Unix that you access to check your web mail, or conduct your Google or Yahoo or Bing searches, or electronically download your books and tunes.

Originally designed by Ritchie to allow old-fashioned computers with very limited capability to interconnect in a lab environment to apportion and share resources, it has now evolved into the operating system of choice for managing the interconnection of super-computers on corporate, local networks, and on the global network we call the internet.

It is also the operating system running unobtrusively in the background every time you fire up you Mac computer, or flip open your Android-run cellphone.

You are also the continual beneficiary of the development of the C programming language, without ever having to know anything about it.

C was originally developed as a kind of adjunct to Unix.

Without getting too technical about it, it came about as a solution to the problem of getting Unix software and applications to run on a variety of different kinds of computer hardware systems.

In the old days, you had to do all that programming in the unique “assembly language” of the particular machine; C allowed you to write your program just once, in a kind of super-language, and then just have it “compile” itself on all kind of different computer platforms.

From that humble first ambition, C, along with its subsequent offspring, has become the world-dominant tool for creating computer software applications of all sorts, from mega-applications running on government and corporate super-computers to the mobile apps on your iPhone.

A Harvard graduate, Dennis Ritchie was anything but a naive little hacker playing around; but he clearly could not have fully appreciated the world-altering effects of his nerdy inventiveness at the time. Nobody could have.

But the world I live in – the world of digital creation and communication – would not be the place it is without his unpretentious, unassuming dedication to the craft he spent the majority of his 70 years practising.

Once they have already happened, events have a way of looking inevitable, as if human agency was subservient to historical development.

The life and triumphs of Dennis Ritchie constitute a small clear refutation of that determinist fallacy.

He is a clear instance of how smart people do small, great things, and those things make great things happen; and the person who did that small, great thing consequently becomes a greatly helpful and useful human being – a human being like the now late, and truly very great, Dennis Ritchie.

Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.

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