Tuesday, October 18, 2011

I know his name now

Recently Chris, a former student of mine, posted this on his Facebook page (which I quote here with his permission):
When Steve Jobs passed away everyone was bawling because a billionaire died. A man who evaded taxes, denied fathering his daughter, cheated others out of organ transplants, basically sued for or stole most of his ideas and did very little philanthropically with his mountains of cash. He was a beloved crook and marketing talent who swindled communities into some feverish orgy of brand loyalty.
Meanwhile, every last person who has ever touched a computer in basically any form owe their livelihoods, entertainment, ability to communicate, hell even their lives to Dennis Ritchie. He was a Titan to the IT world who truly crafted a thing of infinite genius, and everyone, everyone has been standing on his shoulders since. Here is someone to write articles about and ponder their impact on us all, and no one knows his name.
Given the time I've spent with Chris, I know his opinions are thoughtful and based upon considerable research.  And, since I was one of the people who did not know Dennis Ritchie's name, I began to read. 
In Greek mythology, the Titans were the gods who ruled before being overthrown by the younger Olympians. First generation Titans include Uranus, Oceanus, Cronus, Phoebe, and Mnemosyne (one of my favorites); their off-spring include Atlas and Prometheus.  Before being overthrown, they were powerful rulers during the Golden Age.  The 12 Olympians (including Zeus, Hera, Apollo, and Poseidon) who replaced the Titans are arguably better known to purveyors of comic books, superheros, and popular movies.  

Dennis Ritchie "helped shape the digital era."  Oddly or, perhaps, poetically, he died just 12 days after Steve Jobs and is rightly described as a Titan:

Ritchie was the principal designer of the C programming language and co-inventor of the operating system Unix, two inventions that revolutionized modern technology.
The C programming language was widely considered simple and elegant compared to the more cryptic and inaccessible B language that preceded it, and is now widely used. Based on C, Ritchie and Kenneth L. Thompson invented Unix, which is the foundation of today’s predominant operating systems.
Not a flashy man, Ritchie worked for one company (Bell Labs) his entire career and did not seek the spotlight. He was well liked, well respected, and paved the way for the younger Olympians who stood on his shoulders...and who are far better known.

I'm left with the same question Chris raised.  But now I know Dennis Ritchie's name.  Thank you, Chris.

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