Linux, Windows, cloud computing, the internet—computers in general. What they have in common is they all owe a big debt to Bell Labs and one of the research organization’s brightest lights, the late Dennis Ritchie who passed away last October at the age of 70.
Ritchie, joined Bell Labs in 1967 and worked with there until his retirement in 2007. He created the C programming language and co-invented the UNIX operating system with colleague Ken Thompson in 1969 — core technologies that remain foundational to the computing landscape of today. In the process he an co-workers burnished Bell Labs reputation for innovation not just in fundamental research and in the communications industry specifically, but as central to the evolution of modern computing and computer networking.
The C language, for example, has been and continues to be the programming language of choice for everything from Apple (News - Alert) OS software to embedded computing systems. Unix, which Ritchie also co-invented, is the operating system of most large Internet servers, businesses and universities, and a major part of academic and industrial research in operating systems. It directly led to the open source community and the current computer culture. Whether consumers and CEOs know it or not, they directly or indirectly interact on a daily basis with Ritchie’s ingenuity.
In recognition of Ritchie’s enormous talents and contribitions, on September 7th Bell Labs and its parent Alcatel-Lucent (News - Alert), hosted a tribute to Ritchie that was streamed live on the internet and included many of the computing luminaries who, along with Ritchie, have made the world of IT what it is today.
The list of speakers who paid tribute to Ritchie at this celebration of his life included: Google (News - Alert) executive chairman Eric Schmidt; original Bell Labs Computer Systems Lab member and AWK programming language co-creator Al Aho; Unix pipeline inventor Doug McIlroy; UC Berkeley computer architecture professor David Patterson; and, the co-author with Ritchie of the classic C programming language book, Brian Kernighan. Many of the tributes can be viewed on YouTube (News - Alert), including the one by Dr. Susanne Arney, the current head of Bell Labs North America.
Tin Kam Ho, head of the statistics and learning research department at Bell Labs, remembers Ritchie for his curiosity and willingness to follow innovation even when it extended beyond his usual territory. Ritchie never questioned Tin Kam’s sometimes extreme or unorthodox attempts at solving the challenge of noisy data. “Rather, I often found him amused by our ambitions, and remained curious of how far we could go,” she wrote in her tribute to Ritchie on the Alcatel-Lucent site.
Kam noted that “the challenges of our pattern recognition research remained known to only those who had chosen to dive in — massive amount of noisy data, representational spaces with hundreds or thousands of dimensions, and many diverse sources of knowledge in need of integration. But this did not stop Dennis from giving us the support we needed.”
Ritchie received numerous prestigious awards for his work, according to Alcatel-Lucent. These included the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) award for the outstanding paper of 1974 in systems and languages; IEEE Piore, Hamming and Pioneer medals, Bell Laboratories Fellow; ACM Turing Award and ACM Software Systems Award (both in 1983); NEC C&C Foundation Award (1989); the U.S. National Medal of Technology (1999); the University of Pennsylvania’s Harold Pender Award (2003); and the Japan Prize (2011). These awards were shared with Ken Thompson.
Ritchie was a humble person who probably would have been a bit embarrassed by all of the attention and praise. However, he also would have appreciated deeply the recognition of what he and his colleagues and friends were able to accomplish as contributors to the history of communications and computing as as result of the innovation engine and collaborative environment of Bell Labs.
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Edited by Peter Bernstein