The Overshadowed Life Lost in the Technology Field in 2011
The year 2011 was probably most notably known for the death of Steve Jobs, one of the greatest contributors of technology to the end consumer. His death received the duly deserved coverage from the press and articles were written everyone, acknowledging his contributions to society through his vision as a great technologist.
Only a week after the passing of Steve Jobs, on Wednesday, October 12, with very little fanfare, Dennis Ritchie died in his home in Berkley Heights, NJ at the age of 70. Granted, Dennis Ritchie was not a household name to anyone other than those that worked in the technology field.
Dennis Ritchie worked at Bell Labs were he had an illustrious career. In the late 60’s and early 70’s, Dennis made probably the greatest contributions possible to computer science. Working in the famous research department of Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, NJ, Dennis was the principal designer of the “C” programming language. He was also the co-developer of the Unix operating system with his colleague, Ken Thompson.
So at this time, most of you are probably saying, “so what”? What’s the big deal about the “C” programming language and the Unix Operating System? Well these two tools and the derivatives of them pretty much run everything you can think of today!!
When I say everything, it’s no exaggeration!! The C Programming language is very widely used in all applications and operating systems in the market today. If you’re reading this article on a Windows or Apple computer, it was built using the “C” programming language.
If you’re using a smartphone with Windows, Apple IOS, or RIM’s Blackberry OS, then you’re using a product built on the tools that Dennis Ritchie developed.
And his tools go well beyond consumer products. The world’s entire telecommunications systems are developed on UNIX and the “C” programming language. Because of the critical need for performance and reliability in both our wired and wireless switching systems, UNIX and “C” are the best tools for the job.
Neither Steve Jobs nor Bill Gates could have ever achieved the level of success they did without the tools designed and developed by Dennis Ritchie. Don’t get me wrong here, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates will go down in history as being geniuses in their field and will always be forever remembered for their huge contributions to society. Those accolades are well deserved by both of them!! I just found it ironic that just one week after the passing of Steve Jobs, this little known technologist, Dennis Ritchie died with such little fanfare but with contributions that to me, exceed what many others have accomplished.
The following quote from computer historian Paul E. Ceruzzi said after his death: "Ritchie was under the radar. His name was not a household name at all, but... if you had a microscope and could look in a computer, you'd see his work everywhere inside!! That pretty much sums up the point I’m trying to get across.
For his work at Bell Labs, Dennis Ritchie received several awards throughout his illustrious career. Most of these awards are unheard of to the average American but are highly regarded in the technical world. The key awards he received are as follows:
- Turing Award (1983) – won by both Dennis Ritchie and colleague Ken Thompson for their development and implementation of the Unix operating system.
- IEEE Richard W. Hamming Medal (1990) – Dennis and Ken Thompson again for their contributions to Unix and “C” programming language.
- Fellow of the Computer History Museum (1997) – Dennis along with Ken Thompson were named Fellows of the Computer History Museum.
- National Medal of Technology (1999) – presented to both Dennis and Ken by President Clinton. According to the citation for the medal, it was stated that their contributions: "led to enormous advances in computer hardware, software, and networking systems and stimulated growth of an entire industry, thereby enhancing American leadership in the Information Age”
- Japan Prize (2011) – awarded again to Dennis for his work in the development of the Unix operating system.
I have been fortunate enough to work in the same field and at the same company with Dennis. Although I didn’t know him personally, I was fortunate enough to meet him through an unfortunate set of circumstances. As stated above, in 2011 he was awarded the Japan award. The award ceremony was supposed to take place in Japan early in the year, but due to the earthquake and devastation that was caused in Japan, it was decided to move the award ceremony to the now Alcatel-Lucent facility in Murray Hill, NJ. Due to that, I was able to attend the ceremony in the auditorium just months prior to his death. It was very touching to hear all his colleagues get up and speak about the contributions Dennis made as well as the kind of person he was.
Dennis Ritchie was truly a special person with special talents whose contributions to computer science have and will continue to benefit people long into the future. I just wanted to take this time to educate people on “the other” great loss the technology field suffered in 2011.