The Geek You Didn’t Know

God knows we here at Heathen are Apple fans, though sort of accidentally — we lack the zeal of of the true believers, but by and by we seem to have accumulated one of about everything Apple makes. We’re sad about Steve, obviously. 56 is entirely too young (Christ, I can SEE that from here), and the guy was still churning out hits. It is not exaggeration to say that, without him, the personal computing landscape would be very, very different — and most likely much less interesting, and much less usable by the broad population. He didn’t invent the personal computer, but he did a huge chunk of the work required to get it to a place where my 76-year-old stepfather can use it without calling me.

But this post isn’t about Steve. This post is about Dennis. You Heathen are a geeky bunch, but even so most of you have know idea who Dennis Ritchie was, or even that he died Saturday at the age of 70, but the odds are overwhelming that, in reading these words, you’re enjoying his work.

Dennis Ritchie wrote C. The partially-geeky among you will recognize this as a programming language, but it may have never occurred to you that languages, too, must have authors. C is now ubiquitous. It is no exaggeration to say that C and its derivatives (most famously C++, but also Microsoft’s C# and the Objective C that Apple favors, among others) run the world. The definitive book on the language has a real title, but it is known to coders the world over as “The K & R book.” The “R” is, of course, Ritchie.

But that’s not all. C is intimately tied to the Unix operating system, which is also Ritchie’s work, along with his colleagues Brian Kernighan (the “K” mentioned above) and Ken Thompson. You may have heard of Unix, but you (again, the noncoding Heathen) have no idea of the scale of its reach in your life. Unix runs everywhere, in some flavor or another. That commercial flavors have fallen from favor in recent years is of no consequence, because their de facto successor is Linux, which began life as a noncommercial, open, and free implementation of the same ideas. Without Unix there is no Linux. More than that, though, the world wide web as you know is based on Unix ideas and tools and protocols. Without Unix, the Internet itself would not be the same.

Today, variants of Unix run on countless devices — every Apple device running OSX or iOS is running a variant of something called FreeBSD, which is itself a variant of Unix. Android runs on Linux. The New York Stock Exchange? Linux. Your Tivo runs Linux. This site, and countless others (including Google, Amazon, and Facebook), is hosted on Linux. The firewall at your office probably has a Linux kernel. VMWare, the dominant virtualization platform in the world, is based on Linux.

Much was made last week of how many folks learned of Jobs’ passing on an Apple device. I’m sure the figure, if it could actually be measured, was a very high percentage. If we ask an equivalent question about Ritchie, though, the answer is easy: All. There is no communications channel in modern use that does not, somewhere, rely on his work or its descendants.

Humble pioneers are known for admitting that, in the words of Isaac Newton, “If I have seen further, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Apple’s modern success and resurrection are based on a solid software platform, the sine qua non of any technological endeavor. Steve clearly saw further than his contemporaries, but Dennis Ritchie was one of the giants who gave him a leg-up.

Godspeed, Dennis.

Update: This tribute post is worth reading, too. I didn’t cover it here, but it’s not just the C was influential and remains essential; it was also hugely groundbreaking in terms of portability. What Ritchie and his colleagues did with C — i.e., creating a portable computer language not beholden to idiosyncrasies of the various computing hardware platforms — was widely considered impossible at the time. Or, as the linked writer put it:

C is a poster child for why it’s essential to keep those people who know a thing can’t be done from bothering the people who are doing it.

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