Hello, World: Dennis Ritchie, b. 1941


Today’s New York Times Magazine is a special edition dedicated to individuals who have died this past year. This edition of the Magazine was edited by Ira Glass and his This American Life team; the issue is titled These American Lives (the accompanying website is quite good as well). “Hello, world” — the article by Ellen Ullman about Dennis Ritchie, is a wonderful thing — touching on the accomplishments of Ritchie, but also discussing the power of openness and sharing in shaping his work and our modern society:

Hello, world: those were the words that appeared on the screen once you had programmed and run the iconic first example in the book “The C Programming Language,” which Dennis Ritchie, the creator of C, co-wrote with Brian Kernighan. I remember that slim volume’s revelatory power when I read it — its generous, collegial style, more a talk with presumed equals than a textbook. I still have on my shelf the copy I used, a first edition. The pencil scratches seem to indicate I was figuring out what the hell I was doing.

I was a self-taught programmer, and it was through Ritchie that I came to understand the layers of software that worked beneath the screens and printers and keyboards and mice. The newness of C’s conception — and the elegance of it — was that the language was both “high” and “low.” Higher-level languages — like Cobol and Fortran — kept you out of the innards of the machine. “Lower-level” languages — called “assembler” — worked on only specific hardware. Closed environments dominated the computing world of the 1970s and early ’80s. An operating system written for a Hewlett-Packard computer ran only on H.P. computers; I.B.M. controlled its software from chips up to the user interfaces.

But C and the operating system it was deeply intertwined with, Unix, designed by Ken Thompson, were made readily available. Programmers were free to poke around to see and directly manipulate what was in the computer’s memory. The entire environment presumed you knew what you were doing, or trying to do. It let you fail spectacularly — bring down the system with one command — an annoying but essential part of any great experiment. The C/Unix system invited collaboration across time and space, what today we might call “crowd sourcing,” except that the members of this crowd — researchers in government, professors of computer science, students in universities — were deeply knowledgeable and often brilliant.

There doesn’t seem to be a persistent link to the actual article, so you’ll have to go through the Bits blog or the Magazine portal to read it — it’s worth it. As of now, it’s not behind a paywall (at least for me).

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  1. Thanks for sharing, great article and links to NY Times.

  2. Thanks John.

    http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/12/22/magazine/the-lives-they-lived.html?hp#view=dennis_ritchie works for now to get there.

  3. If you look in the first few pages of the K&R C Programming Language book (my 1978 version) it states:
    “This book was set in Times New Roman and Courier 12 by the authors, using a Graphic Systems phototypesetter driven by a PDP-11/70 running under the UNIX operating system.”

    Pretty hardcore…

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