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Dennis Ritchie, A Hero Of The Computer World, Dies

Oct 13, 2011
Originally published on October 13, 2011 10:25 pm
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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

If you read something on a computer today, you did it in part thanks to Dennis Ritchie. He's known as the father of the Unix operating system and the C programming language. Ritchie died on Saturday after a long illness. He was 70 years old.

And as we here from NPR's Laura Sydell, Ritchie helped make modern computing possible.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: It's hard to imagine today, but in the 1970s when someone wrote a computer software program, they had to limit it to working on one computer or spend a lot of time readapting it to every single device. The work of Dennis Ritchie helped change that. He and his colleague, Kenneth Thompson, were working at Bell Labs when they developed a computer language they called simply C. It could be moved easily between different computers. But in a video by Bell Labs, Ritchie said that wasn't the only reasoning behind it.

DENNIS RITCHIE: Well, what we wanted to preserve was not just a good programming environment in which to do programming, but a system around which a community could form.

SYDELL: Ritchie and Thompson rewrote the existing Unix operating system in C. The descendants of Unix and C are countless, but include Linux, Android, Mac OS, Java Script and C++. Ritchie was born in Bronxville, New York and grew up in New Jersey. He first encountered computers at Harvard, where he earned degrees in physics and mathematics. Then he went on to work at Bell Labs, where his father had worked. That's where Lawrence Cowsar met Ritchie.

LAWRENCE COWSAR: If you make a phone call on your cell phone or you use the Internet or make use of many applications, you will somewhere be using something that was written in the language that Dennis designed.

SYDELL: Cowsar says many programmers wanted jobs at Bell Labs just because they wanted to work with Dennis Ritchie.

COWSAR: Many of them bring in their hands sort of dog-eared copy of the book that Dennis wrote about the C programming language hoping for an autograph.

SYDELL: Cowsar says they met a man who was genuinely curious. He wanted to discover and invent things and solve interesting problems. And as a computer scientist in the 1960s and '70s, he had long hair and a beard, and even though he became a manager, Cowsar says Ritchie didn't think you should listen too much to management. Dennis Ritchie received the National Medal in Technology in 1999.

Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.