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Honoring a Computer Pioneer

October 13, 2011

No, not that one.

This one:

Dennis Ritchie, creator of the C programming language and co-creator of the Unix operating system, has died aged 70.

While the introduction of Intel’s 4004 microprocessor in 1971 is widely regarded as a key moment in modern computing, the contemporaneous birth of the C programming language is less well known. Yet the creation of C has as much claim, if not more, to be the true seminal moment of IT as we know it; it sits at the heart of programming — and in the hearts of programmers — as the quintessential expression of coding elegance, power, simplicity and portability.

I think my first K&R was the Second Edition, and my C class in school was mostly an exercise in writing the pre-processor for the prof’s compiler (though we didn’t know that).  I recall how easy it was for me to see how the code would work on the machine, and I could even get down to Assembler-level types of tricks… all while maintaining a portable code base.  Man, this stuff smoked Fortran. (Note: I’m not dissing Fortran.  But that’s another post that none of you would read.  Wait, Keith would…)

AT&T generally focused its creative people on generating patents, and then it would use those to create an industry that stayed on top no matter who ran it.  RCA Sarnoff Labs was a similar exercise that later only GE could mess up.  Meanwhile, people worship Apple, a company that made some nice interfaces and relentlessly tarted up the results to get some short-term stock blips.

So when you talk about real GEEK INNOVATIONS, you have to look at C as a top-tier hall-of-fame type of accomplishment.  For that, I’ll spill some bits honoring a true pioneer of technology.  I hope that some other people spend the time really reflecting on how this is the type of innovation that really changed computing.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. ellend permalink
    October 14, 2011 10:33 pm

    Now I really feel old. We used punch cards to program the IBM 360 – and C hadn’t been invented yet. I learned it on the job.

    I agree C was a great invention. However, I have seen some truly ugly code. It allowed programmers to get away with some very bad programming practices and as someone else mentioned, obscure. It was pretty easy to write obscure code as there is no strong typing, so you could redefine the meaning of variables and pointers. I had to read and fix other people’s code because I was an evaluation and sustaining engineer once upon a time.

    • October 16, 2011 9:03 pm

      The proliferation of C was the proliferation fo bugs, but the creation of C was the creation of code possibility. I don’t thinl we’d have hundreds of millions of lines of code without C.

  2. October 13, 2011 11:40 pm

    It’s ok to diss Fortran….and I didn’t have modems in MY dorm. We had “portable” Compaq computers (the “luggable” models)…C’s ability to mix high level and assembler in the same program is what made devices like the QUICC from Mot happen
    good to have you back

  3. October 13, 2011 10:40 am


    “Unix was written in C.” “C was created under Unix.” “What?”

    I’d have thought that writing in C would make programmers more careful about punctuation in English, but I’ve seen little evidence of that effect. I remember the contests for the World’s Most Obscure C Code — many of those were impressive indeed.

    C has always struck me as a well-WORN language, in the “write once read never” sense.

    Perhaps my only useful contribution to the language was a variable-declaration-to-English-and-back translator. It was handy for training programmers, as well as debugging their results.

    I didn’t spend too much time with it, and usually worked in assembly when I needed something down in the weeds. But unquestionably, this powerful language made tremendous technologies possible, and almost every major application that made computing ubiquitous was developed in C; this remained true for many years, and its descendants are still recognizable and still powerful.

    Rest in peace, Mr. Ritchie.

    ===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle

  4. October 13, 2011 10:11 am

    Sounds like we were in school at about the same time. Futzing around with my C sources in vi over a sketchy 2400baud dial-in connection…. It was both super cool and mega-frustrating at the same time. And just about the time I was ready to compile and optimize, my moron roommate would pick up the freekin’ phone and blow up my connection.

    • October 13, 2011 6:52 pm

      Modems in the dorm? You’re either younger or you just went to a much better college. I used to write my English papers in vi on the mainframes. It would freak out the professors. I also used to write love notes to the girls on the plotter. I didn’t date much, obviously.

      • October 13, 2011 7:26 pm

        Went to OSU. We didn’t even *have phones* in our dorm unless we paid a hefty amount extra. When I lived in the dorms I had to go to the CS lab and use their terminals. When I got my first apt 3rd year is when the dial-in fun began.

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