Dennis Ritchie; In Whose Sandbox We Build Our Castles


Dennis RitchieIn his effervescent article on Steve Jobs, Wessex Scene opinion writer Moggy opened with the statement:

I can’t think of a man on this planet that has had more of a profound effect on the way we live our lives than Steve Jobs.

It is therefore with a subtle irony that a week after Steve’s death, one of the giants upon whose shoulders he had been standing finally toppled. That giant was Dennis Ritchie.

Dennis Ritchie placed the first drops in an ocean which were to spiral outwards far beyond imagination. These ripples have come to define the terms in which we think of computing. The two arguably greatest achievements for which he must be remembered are the development of UNIX, and the programming language C.

The significance of these is not obvious, and therein lies the point. It is true that a large number of people will have learned of Steve Job’s death on devices Steve arguably invented; its a safe bet that all of them learned of it using tools that Dennis Ritchie invented. These inventions are so atomic, so fundamental to how we use modern computers and how programmers build the software we use,  you wouldn’t even think about their existence until someone pointed them out.

UNIX is the operating system which proliferated by virtue of being designed to be portable to any hardware. A novel concept at the time it was written; and greatly aided by the fact that Dennis Ritchie’s other invention, the C programming language, enabled programming code to be compiled into machine code for almost any given hardware, where its primary predecessors had been hardware specific. Now, compilers exist for almost every device; including your iPhone, your Mac, your Android Phone, your Windows PC (or indeed, any IBM compatible PC) to mention but a handful.

UNIX later spawned the POSIX standard- a framework around which to design an operating system. Systems which tie themselves to this mast include Linux and OS X (Apple’s flagship operating system). Linux is the operating system on which most web servers run on- so if you read about something on the internet, odds are its a UNIX-like operating system which is doing the hosting, even if the device you are receiving on is not.

Unix also pioneered the server-client model of operation, which shaped the ideas of the internet. It also made the TCP/IP protocol (the technology underpinning the internet) available on inexpensive machines, positioning computers as separated units in a network. This was later capitalised upon by (our own) Tim Berners-Lee when he came to develop the World Wide Web, and is also the reason why UNIX based machines make such good web servers.

The elegance of Dennis Ritchie’s developments is that a program can be written on a Linux machine, and it will work on OS X, because C can be compiled by either operating system, and the POSIX standard will ensure that anything which is environment dependent will be catered for. A program can even be coded in Windows and (provided the programmer doesn’t rely on the environment in which the application is running) it can be made to run elsewhere too. In fact, using a tool called a cross-compiler, the code can be compiled on a Linux machine and run it on my Android phone.

There are many visionaries who we can number in today’s world of computers- But their visions, their clay into which they breath life, were built in the clay which was laid in place by Dennis Ritchie.

Oh, and by the way, UNIX wasn’t even supposed to be a full OS- it was a development environment, a practice area, a workman’s bench. “Oh that Ferrari I built? Oh I just use that to cross the road I invented…”

Return 0, Dennis.


Philip Adler is a Ph. D. Student of Crystallography, studying in Chemistry.

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