Dennis Ritchie Day

On 10/30/11 let's remember the contributions of computing pioneer Dennis Ritchie.

Dennis RitchieSunday, October 16 was declared Steve Jobs Day by California’s Governor Brown. I admire Brown for taking a step to recognize Jobs’ extraordinary contributions, but I couldn’t help be struck by Rob Pike’s comments on the death of Dennis Ritchie a few weeks after Steve Jobs. Pike wrote:

I was warmly surprised to see how many people responded to my Google+ post about Dennis Ritchie’s untimely passing. His influence on the technical community was vast, and it’s gratifying to see it recognized. When Steve Jobs died there was a wide lament — and well-deserved it was — but it’s worth noting that the resurgence of Apple depended a great deal on Dennis’ work with C and Unix.

The C programming language is quite old now, but still active and still very much in use. The Unix and Linux (and Mac OS X and I think even Windows) kernels are all C programs. The web browsers and major web servers are all in C or C++, and almost all of the rest of the Internet ecosystem is in C or a C-derived language (C++, Java), or a language whose implementation is in C or a C-derived language (Python, Ruby, etc.). C is also a common implementation language for network firmware. And on and on.

And that’s just C.

Dennis was also half of the team that created Unix (the other half being Ken Thompson), which in some form or other (I include Linux) runs all the machines at Google’s data centers and probably at most other server farms. Most web servers run above Unix kernels; most non-Microsoft web browsers run above Unix kernels in some form, even in many phones.

And speaking of phones, the software that runs the phone network is largely written in C.

But wait, there’s more.

In the late 1970s, Dennis joined with Steve Johnson to port Unix to the Interdata. From this remove it’s hard to see how radical the idea of a portable operating system was; back then OSes were mostly written in assembly language and were tightly coupled, both technically and by marketing, to specific computer brands. Unix, in the unusual (although not unique) position of being written in a “high-level language,” could be made to run on a machine other than the PDP-11. Dennis and Steve seized the opportunity, and by the early 1980s, Unix had been ported by the not-yet-so-called open source community to essentially every mini-computer out there. That meant that if I wrote my program in C, it could run on almost every mini-computer out there. All of a sudden, the coupling between hardware and operating system was broken. Unix was the great equalizer, the driving force of the Nerd Spring that liberated programming from the grip of hardware manufacturers.

The hardware didn’t matter any more, since it all ran Unix. And since it didn’t matter, hardware fought with other hardware for dominance; the software was a given. Windows obviously played a role in the rise of the x86, but the Unix folks just capitalized on that. Cheap hardware meant cheap Unix installations; we all won. All that network development that started in the mid-80s happened on Unix, because that was the environment where the stuff that really mattered was done. If Unix hadn’t been ported to the Interdata, the Internet, if it even existed, would be a very different place today.

I read in an obituary of Steve Jobs that Tim Berners-Lee did the first WWW development on a NeXT box, created by Jobs’ company at the time. Well, you know what operating system ran on NeXT’s, and what language.

For myself, I can attest that there would be no O’Reilly Media without Ritchie’s work. It was Unix that created the fertile ground for our early publishing activities; it was Unix’s culture of collaborative development and architecture of participation that was the deepest tap root of what became the open source software movement, and not coincidentally, much of the architecture of the Internet as well. These are the technologies I built my business around. Anyone who has built their software or business with knowledge from O’Reilly books or conferences can trace their heritage back to Ritchie and his compatriots.

I don’t have the convening power of a Governor Brown, but for those of us around the world who care, I hereby declare this Sunday, October 30 to be Dennis Ritchie Day! Let’s remember the contributions of this computing pioneer.

P.S. Help spread the word. Use the hashtag #DennisRitchieDay on Twitter and Google+

Photo: Via Wikimedia Commons.

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  • This is a wonderful idea, Tim!

    It would be nice if NJ Governor Chris Christie (@GovChristie) did the same and declared Oct. 30th Dennis M. Ritchie Day.

    Many people here do not realize who Dennis Ritchie was, or that he lived in New Jersey for nearly his entire life and did his groundbreaking work here.

  • I’d like a John McCarthy day. If more of the world had used Lisp instead of C, we’d have intelligent machines already.

  • This is a good idea and Dennis Ritchie & John McCarthy both deserve this honor. They built the foundation layers for most of the technology we use today.

    Also feel sad about why mainstream media has given little acknowledgement to both these geniuses.

  • Totally agree with you Tim and we should give the honor to the great scientist which he definitely deserves.

  • I’ll use #DennisRitchieDay on and Diaspora, then :P

  • Great idea Tim!
    Its sad that web users at large have no clue on who Dennis Ritchie was, or the fact that the web or desktop computers would not have existed or at least wouldn’t have been the same without Dennis Ritchie’s contribution.

    #DennisRitchieDay on Twitter ,G+ and entire social web, would be the best tribute we can pay.
    And as others have stated John McCarthy deserves a tribute too.

  • Joseph Kohler

    Inventing something is one thing. Making it available to everyone is also an achievement. The C Programming Language book is small compared to most books on programming but the style and examples set it apart. How many computer books 30 years old are still in regular daily use all over the world?

  • Victor

    I read about Dennis Ritchie’s life & death only days after Steve Jobs had passed away, and I have always been amazed at what he accomplished in regards to Unix & the C language, the importance of these accomplishments to not only computing, but to history itself. I am also amazed that outside of the tech community, next to nothing in the mainstream media/culture about his life works and these amazing accomplishments. Our society has become incredibly ignorant if we do not even recognize a genius like Dennis Ritchie.

  • Angel Deras

    I have been really busy and haven’t had time to look into the world’s reaction to Dennis Ritchie’s passing. Other than the attendant obituary in the NY Times, I did not see much. Today, I received Tim O’Reilly’s email on his tribute to Dennis Ritchie. I have a picture of Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson in my cubicle and have had great appreciation for their achievements for more than two decades.

    Consequently, I wrote this letter to Governor Christie of NJ:

    Dear Governor Christie,

    I write to you in the hope that NJ will pay homage to one of its greatest citizens ever. Dennis Ritchie passed away earlier this month at the age of 70. The world as we know it today would not be remotely close if it were not for the contributions made by Dennis Ritchie. He and his colleague Ken Thompson developed Unix and the C programming language in the late 60’s. Today’s Internet-based culture would not have been possible without his legacy.

    Americans always hear about Silicon Valley and its impact on IT and society. NJ, however, has played and equal-if not greater-role in the IT sector, and by extension, the whole world. Most of this impact has come from AT&T and the geniuses there, one of them being Dennis Ritchie.

    Governor Brown of California declared a Steve Jobs day at his passing. Dennis Ritchie created the technology that allowed Jobs to manifest his vision, and to a great extent allowed Microsoft and Bill Gates to make his billions also. Let us declare a Dennis Ritchie Month.

    Please see this posting for a corroboration of this email.

    Thank You,

    Angel R. Deras

    P.S. BTW, I’m a great fan of yours and had hoped that you would bring your unequivocal tenor and fiscal accountability platform to Washington.

  • Angel –

    Thanks for your support for making Dennis Ritchie Day more than a passing fancy.

    As for Washington, I’m continuing to work on those issues as well as tech issues. Mostly from outside. But I will be back in Washington when the political madness subsides.

  • GregPalmer

    Thanks for honoring him Tim. His passing saddened me greatly. I was drawn to programming by the beauty of C, without it my life would have been far different.

  • Dave Livesay

    While the loss of two such visionary people as Jobs and Ritchie in such a short time is profoundly tragic, there is also a positive aspect to the proximity of these events.

    It is unfortunate that pioneers like Ritchie often labor in obscurity and die unsung while the lives and achievements of others, whose careers were only possible because of the former, are more widely recognized and celebrated, but by connecting the two, we make it possible for the public to understand the implications of Ritchie’s contributions in the light of Jobs’ success.

    Most people don’t know what C and Unix are. They know what iPods, iPhones and iPads are, not just because the marketing efforts of a powerful corporation compel them to but because they interact with these devices on a daily basis, and they enable them to do things that matter to them. They don’t know, nor do they need to know, what enables these devices to do what they do. It is undeniable that Jobs could not have done what he did if it weren’t for Ritchie, but how many people would be capable of appreciating–let alone comprehending–the significance of Ritchie’s work if it hadn’t been for Jobs?

    Ritchie’s death, while truly untimely in the sense in which Pike thus characterized it, couldn’t be timelier in the sense that it gives us an ideal opportunity to connect the dots for the public at large. Although I’m too much of a realist to believe in karma or mystical cosmic forces, I can’t help feeling that there is a certain poetic justice in the notion that, just as Ritchie laid the foundation for Jobs’ accomplishments in life, Jobs has returned the favor by preceding him so closely in death.

  • Cas

    An item appeared on hacker news that you are having a sale on books in honor of Dennis Ritchie and linked here.

    In the comments someone brought up the point that it is a bit distasteful to be selling books on the back of someones death and I have to agree.

  • Bob Cochran

    Thanks, Tim, for remembering Dennis! I have found so many opportunities with Unix, Linux, and Apple.

  • Jobs sold everything electronic distractions – Dennis Ritchie created something everybody can use!

  • Walt

    I entirely agree with you and other commentors that Dennis Ritchie, McCarthy, Tim Berners-Lee and others deserve the lasting gratitude and recognition of anyone using computing machines — now nearly everyone with a watch or a phone!

    Thank you!

    Not to detract from Jobs’ contribution, but I think the difference in official response is because Jobs so handsomely enriched himself with his devices, while Dennis’ contributions to the very foundations of computing and communications were largely placed in the public domain.

  • Great idea Tim! There is a huge pool of us who would have had a very different career without the prodigious output of Dennis Ritchie. Not much has been said of his wonderful sense of humor. One of the most brilliantly understated pieces of advice apprears in the 6th Edition man(1) page on what to do when the system crashes. After giving lots of advice and suggestions for how to proceed, the man page ends with:

    “Informed courage counts for much.”

    So true in many facets of life.

    Thanks dmr, wherever you are.


  • tz

    C and UNIX were the elegant solutions. Say everything concisely. Use them or reinvent them badly.

    Fortran and cobol, or even pl/1, apl, and algol?

    Multics and os/360 were huge, and triumphs, but anyone can write complex bloatware. Fork, exec; open, ioctl, read, write, lseek, close. The simplicity of char/block/pipe.

    Beethoven’s 5th is two motifs of 4 and 8 notes. Yet it is in the top of western music. Bach interleaved simple themes. That is genius.

    Simple. Elegant. Beautiful.

  • Hans Klarenbeek

    But lets be realistic here how much did he contribute to the political parties ?

  • Penang

    I am from Asia. In the ’80s I went to USA for further study, and I consider myself very blessed for being able to benefit from people like Mr. Dennis Ritchie.

    Mr. Ritchie had so selflessly contributed so much to the tech community, and yet he was so ever helpful to all.

    Thank you, Dennis Ritchie, and thanks all !

  • Yogesh Kulkarni

    Dennis Ritchie has indeed touched human life in ways that cannot be imagined. On my personal basis, being a C,Unix programmer, he created the tools which earn me two square meals for my family lots other things.

    On a larger scale, there is a mention of the ipads and ipods and various os’s ( probably including windows ). Not only those, but several medical equipments where software is C based, help millions across the world to get diagnosed better and getting better treatment. To say that this invention touched millions would be an understatement. It has indeed had a profound impact on the whole human race, an impact that just cannot be measured in any manner.

  • bubu matashau

    big beard guy looks like a hippie.

  • Very very good idea!! I’m supportive about it.
    Also, probably FreeBSD 9.0 will be DMR release,

  • Sigh, due to power outages caused by the snow in New England I missed the Dennis Ritchie day specials.

    I still have my first edition “The C Programming Language” and I still use it.

  • David Moss

    Personally, I am not going to wait until some governor decides a special day for one of the best computer minds, and visionary. My collegue and I are pushing for a company meeting room to named after him. As for me, in my house, my children will know who Dennis was, and his legacy.