Childhood & Early Life
Dennis MacAlistair Ritchie was born on September 9, 1941, in Bronxville, an affluent suburb of New York City, U.S., to Alistair E. Ritchie and Jean McGee Ritchie. He grew up with two brothers, Bill and John, and a sister, Lynn.
At the time when Dennis was born, his father had been working for ‘Bell Labs’ for a long time. He was well-known among the scientific community and worked in the domain of electrical engineering. He had also co-authored the book ‘The Design of Switching Circuits.’ Dennis’s mother was a homemaker.
The family moved to Summit, New Jersey, when Dennis was still young. There, Dennis joined the ‘Summit High School.’ Ever since he was a teenager, he was interested in his father’s work profile. He himself was an academically bright student.
He scored impressive grades in high school and made his way to ‘Harvard University,’ where he studied applied mathematics and physics.
His interest in computer science had developed early, when he was still in high school. Back then, he attended a lecture that showcased the functionality of ‘Univac I,’ ‘Harvard’s computer system. Dennis was massively impressed, and this aroused his curiosity about computers.
While he was studying physics at ‘Harvard,’ he began reading about computers. He also attended many lectures to understand the basics of programming.
He was offered a job at ‘Massachusetts Institute of Technology’ (MIT) while studying at ‘Harvard.’ Back then, computer programming was not too popular, and the computer labs were looking for people, even without a degree, who could operate computers there. Dennis took this great opportunity and explored his interests in computer programming.
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While working at ‘MIT,’ Dennis realized that the computers during that time were huge and that a single computer occupied almost an entire room’s space. He began working on an operating system that could be used in portable computers. The few smaller computers that were being made did not have accessible operating systems.
Dennis began working on a computer program that could be used in small computers. He wished to shrink the size of a computer without affecting its workability. He found many supporters for his project, such as ‘MIT,’ ‘Honeywell,’ and ‘General Electrics.’
Many scientists and computer scholars also helped Dennis in his endeavors. His project ended as soon as he completed his graduation at ‘Harvard.’ Following his graduation, he was sure he wanted to work in the field of computers and not physics.
By then, he had built a strong portfolio, which enabled him to easily secure a job at ‘Bell Labs.’ Back then (in 1967), ‘Bell Labs’ was one of the most advanced laboratories in the world. His father had worked there for many years. Named after Graham Bell, it was the only telephone service provider in the U.S. at that time.
The lab was also responsible for pioneering many advanced research studies on computers. However, at that time, there was no professional degree for computers. Hence, Dennis began working with more experienced computer scientists and learned on the job.
Ken Thompson was yet another young computer scientist who had joined ‘Bell Labs’ around the same time as Dennis. Dennis and Ken collaborated to work and also became friends.
Minicomputers were becoming more popular in the early 1970s, but there was an absence of a simple and feasible system that would create a way for interaction between different computers. They researched for months and eventually came up with the ‘Unix’ operating system.
‘Unix’ made computers user-friendly and accessible. Earlier, computers could only be used by experts. ‘Unix’ was also cheap, which meant computers could become a household commodity.
Dennis led the team that came up with ‘Unix,’ and when it was released to be consumed by the general public, it became an immediate success.
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However, the computer languages had limited vocabulary, and this created many roadblocks to a good computing experience. Dennis borrowed some aspects of the old programming languages and developed a new one named ‘C’ between 1972 and 1973.
‘C’ programming language brought about a revolution in the computing world. Almost all computer engineers switched to it. It was so advanced for its time that most computer programs these days, too, are written on ‘C.’
‘C’ requires a limited set of instructions and little syntax to write a computer programme, but it is well-structured and modular. It became a globally used programming language by the mid-1980s, and many leading MNCs began writing their software on ‘C.’
In 1990, Dennis was hired as the head of the ‘Computing Techniques Research Department’ of ‘Lucent Technologies,’ which was the renamed version of ‘Bell Labs.’ He wrote new computer applications and managed the exponential growth of the operating systems that had already been released.
Over the years, Dennis received many awards and honors, including a ‘Turing Award’ and an ‘IEEE Richard W. Hamming Medal.’ Dennis and Ken were also honored with a fellowship by the ‘Computer History Museum.’
In addition, they both received the ‘National Medal of Technology’ in 1999.
Family, Personal Life & Death
Dennis Ritchie never married.
He passed away on October 12, 2011, at his home in New Jersey. He was suffering from heart ailments and prostate cancer. He was 70 years old at the time of his death. The news of his demise was overshadowed in the media by the news of Steve Jobs’ death, who had died a week earlier.
Dennis had said in an interview that his lack of a sound educational background became instrumental in the development of ‘C,’ as he considered every possibility, even going beyond the limits of conventional education. Had he been educated in computers, he would probably not have ventured outside the limits of his knowledge.