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dmr rip

Dennis Ritchie, inventor of the C programming language and co-developer of the UNIX operating system, died earlier this week at the age of 70. In addition to the aforementioned accomplishments, he also shared a Turing award with Ken Thompson for his work in operating systems.  His was the second death of a tech pioneer (the first of course being Steve Jobs) in less than a weeks time, prompting a colleague of mine to speculate if a proverbial third death was on the horizon. I immediately thought of my old grad school professor (among many other much more important things) Fred Brooks, who  turned 80 this  year. I hope I'm wrong about that.

It's hard to exaggerate Ritchie's influence on computer science. Although C is not  widely used anymore, its descendants (C++ and objective C) are. And most programming languages base their syntax on C. It's possible to cut and paste huge chunks of a C program into a Java program and still have it work. I know because I've done that.

Although he is an enduring influence, he was also part of an era in computer science history that is drawing to a close. C and UNIX are very simple, elegant products. UNIX and C were developed at a time when hardware was more limited, and that partly explains their simplicity (as well as their terse syntax). But not completely. Before C caught on  PL/I, a great bloated behemoth of a language, was very popular. In contrast  to that, C was a very small language that could be extended as needed with function libraries.If your problem was simple,  you could write a simple program to solve it in C. That's not the case with more modern programming languages. In Java, even a "Hello World" program looks bloated.

I hope his influence doesn't fade completely. I asked my data structures class if anyone knew who Dennis Ritchie was. One person (out of about 50) raised his hand. Another student asked "Is he related to Nicole Ritchie?". That was depressing. Not knowing who Dennis Ritchie  was is understandable, but the way he framed his question suggested he'd never even heard of Nicole's father Lionel, whose musical accomplishments require a lot more work and talent than being a reality TV star.  I wish students knew more about people who were famous more than 15 minutes ago.

Maybe computer science departments should offer a course in the history of computer science.  Students need and deserve to know about the giants whose shoulders they are standing on. And Dennis Ritchie certainly deserves to be more famous than Nicole.