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September 9, 1941 in Bronxville, New York.


October 2011.


Ph.D. in Physics and Applied Mathematics, Harvard (1967);


Member of Technical Staff, Bell Laboratories, Murray Hill NJ (Multics project 1967-1969, Creator of C language, Co-creator of Unix operating system, co-creator of Plan 9 From Bell Labs operating system, co-creator of Inferno distributed operating system, Department Head, Bell Laboratories)


The following awards were jointly given to both Thompson and Ritchie: ACM Programming Systems and Languages Paper Award (1975); ACM A.M. Turing Award (1983); ACM Software System Award (1983); IEEE Emmanuel R. Piore Award (1983), IEEE Richard W. Hamming Medal (1990); IEEE Computer Pioneer Award (1994); Computer History Museum Fellow Award (1997); National Medal of Technology from President Bill Clinton (1998); ACM SIGOPS Hall of Fame Award (2005). Japan Prize for Information and Communications (2011). Ritchie was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1988. Industrial Research Institute Achievement Award in recognition of his contribution to science and technology, and to society generally, with his development of the Unix operating system (2005).

Dennis M. Ritchie DL Author Profile link

United States – 1983

With Ken Thompson, for their development of generic operating systems theory and specifically for the implementation of the UNIX operating system.

Dennis MacAlistair Ritchie was born September 9, 1941 in Bronxville, New York. His father worked at AT&T Bell Laboratories, and Dennis grew up in New Jersey.

Ritchie received a BS degree in Physics in 1963 and a PhD in Applied Mathematics in 1967 from Harvard University. While a graduate student, Ritchie had a part-time job at MIT Project MAC's Multics timesharing project.

After graduation, Ritchie and Ken Thompson joined the Bell Laboratories Computing Sciences Research Center in Murray Hill, NJ. At the time, staff members of this group had considerable latitude in choosing research topics in computing theory, languages, programming and systems. Since 1964, members of the group had been participating in the design and development of the Multics system, along with developers from MIT's Project MAC and General Electric.

Ritchie worked with others in many different software projects associated with the Multics operating systems or tools. For example, in 1967, Ritchie, Robert Morris and Rudd Canaday ported the programming language BCPL from CTSS to the Multics and GECOS systems.

In 1969 Bell Labs withdrew from the Multics project. The Computing Sciences Research group members searched for other projects, and in particular for a computing environment with an on-line community that avoided the "big system mentality." Unix was to provide such an environment. Ritchie wrote:

"It began in 1969 when Ken Thompson discovered a little-used PDP-7 computer and set out to fashion a computing environment that he liked. Thompson wrote the first version of Unix for a Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-7 in a month, using a cross-assembler that ran on GECOS. The PDP-7 he used had 4K of 18-bit words. His work soon attracted me; I joined in the enterprise, though most of the ideas, and most of the work for that matter, were his."The resulting Unix system provided users with interactive remote terminal computing and a shared file system. Source code was provided with the system, and the community of users could share ideas and programs directly and informally. Because Unix ran on a relatively inexpensive minicomputer, small research groups could experiment with it without dealing with computation center bureaucracies.

In 1971, the Bell Laboratories Computing Sciences Research group ported Unix to a Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-11 to support text processing for the Bell Laboratories Patents Office. By 1972, there were 10 installations of Unix at AT&T.

Ken Thompson also created an interpretive language called B, based on BCPL, which he used to re-implement the non-kernel parts of Unix. Ritchie added types to the B language, and later created a compiler for the C language. Thompson and Ritchie rewrote most of Unix in C in 1973, which made further development and porting to other platforms much easier.

The second ACM Symposium on Operating Systems Principles was held in Elmsford, NY in 1973, and Thompson and Ritchie presented a clear and well-written paper [3] describing Unix. The Unix system presented in the paper was elegant and simple, providing a useful and extensible multi-user programming environment on an affordable machine. The file system and libraries included with the system made it easy to build and share application programs and to augment the system's functions. By the end of 1973, there were over 20 Unix systems running.

Thompson and Ritchie, along with other Computing Sciences Research group members, continued the development of Unix and C at Bell Laboratories, and Unix use spread further within AT&T. The Sixth Edition, released in 1975, began the spread of Unix to university, commercial, and government users of the popular DEC PDP-11 computers. AT&T, forbidden by court decree from selling Unix, licensed it for the cost of media. Enthusiastic users had the source code available, and fed improvements to Unix back to the Bell Labs developers. A 1977 retrospective paper by Ritchie [4] said that there were more than 300 Unix installations running on configurations from a single-user DEC LSI-11 to a 48-user PDP-11/70. By 1978, there were over 600 Unix installations, and Unix had begun to be ported to other minicomputers.

In the late 1970s, John Lions of the University of New South Wales circulated a book [8] on Unix that included the source code and commentaries on it. This book was used to teach Unix in operating systems courses around the world, and created a generation of computer scientists familiar with Unix internals.

In 1983, Thompson and Ritchie received the ACM A. M. Turing Award. The Turing Award selection committee wrote:

The success of the UNIX system stems from its tasteful selection of a few key ideas and their elegant implementation. The model of the Unix system has led a generation of software designers to new ways of thinking about programming. The genius of the Unix system is its framework, which enables programmers to stand on the work of others.

In the mid-1980s, several organizations promoted different technical approaches to Unix on different platforms, with different licensing arrangements. Thompson and Ritchie were honored as the originators of the system but no longer controlled its destiny. They went on to other computing research projects within AT&T.

Ritchie became head of the Bell Laboratories Computing Techniques Research Department in 1990 and, with others, began the Inferno distributed operating system and the Limbo language in 1995. Inferno is designed to support applications such as television set-top boxes and advanced telephones.

Ritchie retired as head of Lucent Technologies' System Software Research Department in 2007, and died in early October, 2011.

Author: Tom Van Vleck