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11 October 2012, 16:21

Hello World: Commemorating the first anniversary of the death of Dennis Ritchie

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Dennis Ritchie

Tomorrow, 12 October, will mark a year since the death of Dennis Ritchie. Last month, employees at Bell Labs, as well as Ritchie's friends and family paid tribute to the man who laid many foundations for the digital world that we live in.

It was a year ago that Dennis MacAlistair Ritchie, in frail health after battles with prostate cancer and heart disease, passed away at his home in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey at the age of 70. He was found some time later. His friend Robert Pike conveyed the news to the world, in a post on Google+, of the death of this epitome of all geeks, of a man who made history as dmr.

It had been together with Pike that Ritchie once thought up a plan for a prank on their boss, Arno Penzias. Penzias, a Nobel prize laureate, was confronted with what appeared to be a new voice recognition system that could create interviews with celebrities. The computer's voice control was simulated from the room next door by Ritchie. A video of this prank demonstrates the team's geek humour, down to the film credits that list Brian Kernighan as a gaffer.

Together with Kernighan, Ritchie wrote a book on the C programming language he had developed; this book served many generations of geeks as an introduction to programming. In his tribute at the Bell Labs memorial, Kernighan described how Ritchie painstakingly archived every edition of the "bible". Professor Al Aho, former Bell Labs researcher and "the a in awk", explained the importance of C, variations of which control machines from the iPhone on Earth to the Curiosity rover on Mars.

And then there was the UNIX operating system. Already severely weakened by his illness, Ritchie was awarded the Japan Prize in 2011 for developing UNIX together with Ken Thompson. Ritchie attended the prize-giving ceremony via video link. This was his last public appearance. Tracing the development of UNIX up to Linux, Ritchie emphasised the importance of open interfaces and said that he was glad that this ancient software artefact was still playing a role. Both the Fedora 16 Linux distribution and Free BSD 9.0 have been dedicated to his memory.

As explained by his brother John in his tribute song, Ritchie was always concerned with finding the most simple solution possible.

"There's that line from Newton about standing on the shoulders of giants. We're all standing on Dennis' shoulders." – Brian Kernighan


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