According to a statement given to the New York Times by Ritchie’s brother Bill, Dennis Ritchie was living alone at his home in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, prior to his death. Richie’s health had reportedly deteriorated, and his last years were made difficult by the after effects of treatments for prostate cancer and heart disease. In addition to his brother Bill, Ritchie is survived by his sister Lynn and his other brother John.
Dennis Ritchie was born in Bronxville, New York, in 1941. His father was an engineer with Bell Labs and his mother was a homemaker. His family eventually moved to New Jersey, where he would remain throughout high school. Ritchie then went on to study applied mathematics at the prestigious Harvard University. During his graduate studies at Harvard, Ritchie grew to prefer computing over mathematics thanks to a computer center position with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His skills led to recruitment in the late 1960’s from Sandia National Laboratories, a weapons research and testing firm. Ritchie ditched the opportunity due to a lack of interest in making weapons for the government, and instead joined Bell Labs in 1967.
It was with Bell Labs that Ritchie began his major contributions to the tech world. He joined minds with Ken Thompson, another Bell Labs employee, to develop the C programming language and UNIX operating system. The pair worked well together, as Ritchie brought mathematical expertise to the table while Thompson offered experience in the realm of electrical engineering. Thompson, who now serves as an engineer for Google, commented on the partnership with Ritchie: “We were very complementary. Sometimes personalities clash, and sometimes they meld. It was just good with Dennis.”
The ideas and rules injected by Ritchie into the C programming language are still alive and well to this day. In fact, the C++ and Java programming languages have used some of Ritchie’s ideas seen in C as a springboard to build upon. UNIX is similar in this regard, as its impact is still being felt decades later. Linux, a widely used open-source UNIX variant, is the force behind data centers of such industry giants as Amazon and Google. Even Apple’s iOS used UNIX technology as its foundation. Brian Kernighan, a former colleague of Ritchie at Bell Labs who now works as a computer scientist at Princeton University, commented on the legacy Ritchie left behind, saying, “The tools that Dennis built — and their direct descendants — run pretty much everything today.”
The importance of the C programming language and UNIX cannot be denied, as both represented innovation in philosophy and a new way of thinking. Ritchie and Thompson held a common goal behind their development, which was to enhance collaboration and make computing available to a larger population. Ritchie put it best when he said that the aim was to create “a system around which fellowship can form.”
C offered professional programmers increased productivity through improved performance. Kernighan described the language, saying: “C is not a big language — it’s clean, simple, elegant. It lets you get close to the machine, without getting tied up in the machine.” The simplicity and concise format of C helped it grow in popularity over the years, which prompted Kernighan and Ritchie to write the text “The C Programming Language.” The text, also known by the moniker of “K. & R.” after the last initials of its two authors, went on to sell millions of copies of its two editions developed in 1978 and 1988. It has also been translated into 25 languages for use around the world.
Ritchie’s friends and family assert that his main passion was his work, and it showed through his decades of work on various projects with Bell Labs. He officially retired in 2007. Ritchie was also said to be an avid reader and traveler who wrote in his spare time. His writing style was described as clean and concise, and many colleagues likened it to his code. “There was a remarkable precision to his writing, no extra words, elegant and spare, much like his code,” said Kernighan.