The generation of people who defined modern computing seems to be passing this year. Following Max Mathews, another Bell Labs titan is lost to us: Dennis Ritchie is the man who created the original C programming language (again at Bell Labs) as well as co-developed the UNIX operating system. President Obama commented that many people learned of Steve Jobs’ death on a device “he invented.” For all Jobs’ contributions, it is as untrue to say that as it is true to say the same of Ritchie: you are quite literally reading this story as served by software derived from his creations on UNIX, using tools written primarily in the language he, with others, devised.

For music, C endures in some form as the basis of the vast majority of tools we use for musical computation – that is, his creation is at the heart of the software with which we all make music. And just as Mathews made the computer sing for the first time, C is a lingua franca on which musical expression is based, the kernel of the vast array of sounds computers today make.

But C is important not simply because, in some form, it remains at the heart of much of the computer code written today. It also introduced in a material sense the idea of portability and cross-platform code, allowing in turn music tools like Csound and others to appear on new computers rather than pass away. It formalized coding concepts that, even in radically-different, more “modern” languages survive. That means that for people expressing musical ideas in code – and anyone using the software that results – software is not tied to specific hardware, lost as new generations of gear cause the old to pass away. The ideas behind C allow computer music to pass from one generation to another – to outlive us.

Ritchie would probably at this point hasten to add that he didn’t work alone, that his work was based on others, that he had colleagues like Ken Thompson who worked with him on C and UNIX. Such is the nature of invention, and unlike the titanic egos of the past (yes, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, we’re looking at you), some of today’s creations were built by people whose impact was no smaller, but who have been far humbler and lesser-known.

So, get to know Dennis and the many colleagues who survive him. Marvel that the “machine” is not some alien robot at all, but that in your hands, you hold the contributions of creative human beings, the thoughts of complete strangers encapsulated in front of you, and that at the end of the day, you can make it all sing a song.

Via TechCrunch

  • Kas

    Nice piece, Peter. It strikes me that what you point out about people is actually exactly how UNIX works; a lot of useful yet humble little processes that work together to make something great. There too it is is true that it is often easy to only notice the prominent graphical front.

  • What a fantastic way to sum it all !

    Thank you!

    These times are definitely sad.

  • Human Plague

    Create Digital Obituaries.

    This is turning out to be a grief-stricken year.

    RIP dmr.

  • This is sad news! I'm partway through K&R C right now. 

  • br1

    RIP dmr.

  • Brian Tuley

    DSP programs are generally programmed in C.

  • pierlu


    thank you

  • rockridge98

    We owe a huge debt to Mr Ritchie and his Bell Labs cohorts. I can't think of any piece of recent technology that isn't programmed in some flavor of C or an interpreter written in C: Windows, MacOS, Linux, Java, Android (via Java), iOS, MP3 codecs, the engine control systems of your car, the networking stacks that the Internet runs on, the web browser you are reading this on, etc.

  • J

    Great tribute, Peter.

    Thank you, Dennis Ritchie!

  • MattH

    Nice tribute. In defence of Henry Ford's ego:

    "I invented nothing new. I simply assembled the discoveries of other men behind whom were centuries of work. Had I worked fifty or ten or even five years before, I would have failed. So it is with every new thing. Progress happens when all the factors that make for it are ready and then it is inevitable. To teach that a comparatively few men are responsible for the greatest forward steps of mankind is the worst sort of nonsense." — Henry Ford

  • Peter Kirn

    Actually, okay, I was perhaps unfair to Mr. Ford. Edison I think was a true genius — so no need to defend his ego.

    I like what Ford is saying there, as it's very consistent with what you do in the context of rapidly-progress computation, too.

  • MattH

    @Peter – absolutely! Btw that quote came via the video series 'Everything Is a Remix' [1], which explores that same idea of collaboration and originality, with a focus on film and technology. Thomas Edison features of course 🙂

    From the transcript:

    "[…] Thomas Edison didn’t invent the light bulb — his first patent was 'Improvement in Electric Lamps' — but he did produce the first commercially viable bulb… after trying 6,000 different materials for the filament."

    …all adding further weight to the argument that genius often includes years hard work, trial and error, and standing on the shoulders of giants – very much in keeping with your post.

    Really nice to see tributes to lesser-sung heroes like Dennis Ritchie.

    [1] '

  • ideletemyself

    Thomas Edison had an ego big enough to keep Nikola Tesla down… HA! 😉

  • Who can forget such timeless classics as 'hello' and 'all night long'?

  • May God rest his soul in peace! He was a great man and a real talent!

  • 🙁

  • mediawest

    you can put ritchie with tesla in the category of who most changed the 20th century… and then Einstein, edison and ford….