A Tribute to Two Luminaries of the Computing World

Since my last post, it has transpired that two luminaries in the world of computing have passed away. The first, Steve Jobs, had his death at the age of 56 covered heavily in the world’s media. With a charismatic presentation style which made him the face of Apple, Steve Jobs was at the forefront of many of the revolutions of personal computing. Under his leadership, Apple created the first computers which were desirable for ordinary people, developed computers which were as much fashion statements as viable technological gadgets and made the portable digital music player a household device, and NeXT’s computers helped usher in the age of the World Wide Web.

Most of the things which could be said about Steve Jobs have already been said by the media. His strong, almost dictatorial leadership style may have sometimes yielded results that I was not entirely pleased with, yet Apple’s devices seem to have captured the zeitgeist, where technological simplicity and fashionability are more desirable to many people than sheer power and functionality.

The iPod and iPhone have become, at one stage or another, almost synonymous with portable music players and smartphones. Even in the more recent smartphone market, where the Android platform has become the most popular operating system, taking over the place from Symbian, only a few phones are instantly recognisable – and one of these is the iPhone.

While Steve Jobs’ death was covered heavily in the media, the death of the second luminary went almost unnoticed. Dennis Ritchie, who died at the age of 70, was one of the single most revolutionary and important individuals in computing history, with his developments underpinning much of modern computer software design.

Dennis Ritchie worked for the Bell Labs division of AT&T, working on the Multics project which the laboratories were presently engaged with. When Bell Labs left the project, Ritchie ended up working with Ken Thompson and others on a new operating system for a PDP-7 minicomputer, designed to allow for a port of a game called Space Travel. The operating system, named Unix as a pun on Multics, was designed with efficiency in mind, especially on the memory-poor environment of the PDP-7.

While Unix was being developed, Ritchie was involved in another project – developing a programming language which was based ultimately on BCPL. When the Bell Labs staff wished to port Unix onto a different computer, the C programming language became one of the first high-level language to support the development of system software. From these inauspicious beginnings, Unix and C both spread as AT&T gifted Unix to several universities, influencing computer science students, leading to a further spread of Unix and the development of other programming languages based on C, such as C++.

Today, the C programming language has fundamentally influenced nearly all system software development and much of application development, and Unix’s innovations have spread to the entire computing spectrum. Many of the operating systems of today can either directly or indirectly trace their lineage back to the original Unix of 1969, with Ritchie’s development of C fundamental to this development.

In 1978, Ritchie, along with Brian Kernighan, another Bell Labs researcher, published what would later become known as one of the most elegant and condensed volumes ever to be written on the subject of programming. The C Programming Language, in 228 pages in its first edition, and 272 in the second edition based on the ANSI C standard, covers the entire language with a conciseness that puts many other manuals to shame. The “hello, world” program which opened the book has become particularly influential.

Between both of them, Steve Jobs and Dennis Ritchie have ultimately influenced much of modern computing. Jobs’ work with Apple has helped lead to the popularisation of computing among ordinary end-users, while Ritchie’s development of C has immeasurably determined the path of computer software design. Their work shall not be forgotten.

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