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13 October 2011, 10:48

Dennis Ritchie, creator of C and more, has died

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Zoom Dennis Ritchie receiving the National Medal of Technology in 1999

Dennis Ritchie, best known as the creator of the C programming language and co-creator of the UNIX operating system, has died at the age of 70 after a long, unspecified, illness. News of his death came from past collaborator, Rob Pike, in a message on Google+ which read: "I trust there are people here who will appreciate the reach of his contributions and mourn his passing appropriately. He was a quiet and mostly private man, but he was also my friend, colleague, and collaborator, and the world has lost a truly great mind."

Ritchie's work with Ken Thompson in developing the UNIX operating system, led to them receiving the Turing Award in 1993, the IEEE Hamming medal in 1990, the National Medal of Technology in 1999 and, most recently, the Japan Prize for Information and Communications in 2011.

UNIX came about from attempts by Ritchie and his collaborators to create a simpler, cleaner operating system as a reaction to the "big system syndrome" which they saw in contemporary operating systems. From its early days in the 1970s at Bell Labs, UNIX redefined how people thought about operating systems. UNIX was not just code, but a culture based around ideas such as small programs connected by pipes. It was the Unix culture that inspired Linus Torvalds to create Linux, the open source UNIX-like operating system. The C Programming language, which UNIX was written in, became the de facto language for systems, application and embedded programming and is still one of the most popular languages in the world; Ritchie once said of his creation "C is quirky, flawed, and an enormous success."

As noted by Tim Bray (editor of the XML specification), Ritchie also brought to the world the idea of introducing new languages with a "Hello world" program, null-terminating byte strings, creating processes by duplicating existing ones, and writing operating systems in a compiled machine-independent programming language. "It is impossible – absolutely impossible – to overstate the debt my profession owes to Dennis Ritchie" said Bray, "I’ve been living in a world he helped invent for over thirty years."


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