Dennis Ritchie, 1941-2011: Computer scientist, Unix co-creator, C programming language designer

Computer scientist Dennis Ritchie is reported to have died at his home this past weekend, after a long battle against an unspecified illness. No further details are available at the time of this blog post.

Wikipedia biography here.

He was the designer and original developer of the C programming language, and a central figure in the development of Unix. He spent much of his career at Bell Labs. He was awarded the Turing Award in 1983, and the National Medal of Technology in 1999.

"Ritchie's influence rivals Jobs's; it's just less visible," James Grimmelman observed on Twitter. "His pointer has been cast to void *; his process has terminated with exit code 0."

The news of Ritchie's death was first made public by way of Rob Pike's Google+.

Photo, below: Candlelight vigil for Dennis M. Ritchie. (thanks, Kevin)


  1. exit code 0? No, hell no. Exit code 1. Subroutine successful!

    (edit: i suck at c! i do apologize for my error. RIP Mr. Ritchie)

    1. In UNIX, an ultimate exit code of 1 (or any non-zero, unsigned 8-bit int) signifies an error.  I assume the reason is that there’s only one kind of success, but many kinds of failure.

      1. Returning a NULL pointer on the other hand is often an indicator that Bad Thing occurred and any other value is presumably a success :)

        But, yeah, you’re supposed to return a “0” to tell UNIX that your process didn’t abort.

    2. Sorry, guy, clearly not a C programmer or a Unix programmer.  exit() is a system call (C doesn’t have “subroutines”) and “return” is a C language statement.  exit() takes you back out to the parent process and the convention, at least as far as shells are concerned, is that exit(0) is a normal termination and exit(anything else) means some problem was encountered.  That said, there’s some confusion about the distinction between library invocations of system calls, where returning 0 usually indicates success, and library routines for other stuff, where returning 0 usually indicates failure.

      Take better care of Unix – it’s an extraordinary legacy he left us.

      1. I just got pwned!

        I sure love Unix, it’s a beautiful thing, although I am a shitty C programmer, haven’t done so in 10 years.

        Spending all my energy now on the bastard child JS :(

      2. =v= A return value of 0 (and, in practice, NULL) is an excellent optimization for underlying machine code that branches on zero.  For functions that simply return status, 0 as success is the optimal test for moving on.  For functions that return data, testing for  0 (or NULL) is the quickest “did it work?” test.

    3. Uh, return(0) meant success.  Return(anything but 0) meant failure.  I’m sure that you’ll agree that his life was indeed a success.

    1. I agree… but I doubt the internet is going to be full of photos of people holding up candles to their dogeared copies of K&R.

    2. Well, while we’re dancing on graves, I guess I could point out that Dennis Ritchie was indirectly responsible for 99+% of all buffer overflow exploits, segfaults, and other atrocities… or I could not be a dick and say I’m sorry to see an old hacker go. Guess I’ll go with the latter. RIP, dmr.

      1.  That’s like saying the man who invented hammers was responsible for every mashed thumb.  Wielded incompetently, even excellent tools can cause harm.

        1. Wielded incompetently, even excellent tools can cause harm.

          Very true. And in regard to C, one might say: even wielded excellently, incompetent tools can cause harm. Ritchie himself called C “quirky, flawed, and an enormous success.” I agree with him totally, and I’ll always respect him for his humility and honesty in the face of such success.

    3. Last week, I saw Apple fans telling me how even anyone who doesn’t own Apple products should be thankful to Jobs, because somehow the products we use wouldn’t exist without Apple(!) Yet here we have someone who really did create things that are fundamental to many Apple products (directly, not just a vague “influenced”) – I wonder how many of those people will even be aware of him, let alone mark his death?

  2. Rivals? Far surpasses, but in a much, much less obvious way.

    Every consumer operating system in the past 20 years can point to C’s (and Unix’s) influence.

    Huge swaths of microcontrollers are programmed in C, and their numbers outweigh PCs by far — in fact, for every PC, there’s at _least_ a keyboard with a microcontroller to go with it.

    His influence is almost all pervasive, and I have no doubt that it will continue to be for years and years to come — at the very least in the form of non-electronic things designed with software that can point back to C or Unix.

  3. That was the language we learned in school that got us that first job, everything was UNIX C / C++ in early 1990s…it paved the way for $$$ and a career if you had studied Math, Comp Science and/ or EE. There was always a waiting list for that class in college, and you were lucky and grateful to get in. On Wall Street – everything was C++ /Unix for fastest financial calculations on most complex instruments such as mortgage backed securities and CDOs.

    1. Unix and C/C++ have a lot of positive uses too.  They’ve been ported to just about everything that’s Turing-complete–no need to point out that they are used for evil.

  4. As soon as I finished this article, I leafed through my copy of K&R. C was the first programming language I learned (using this book) and is also probably my favorite.

  5. Ironically, all of the more popular tech feeds are quiet on this event-once again, proving superior marketing trumps superior design.

  6. Although I hate to use the occasion of this gentleman’s passing to bring attention to this, note the interesting resemblance between force-for-computer-good, Dennis Ritchie, and (alleged) force-for-computer-evil, Andrew Alan Escher Auernheimer, aka “Weev.”

    It’s like Ritchie was shorn of 32 years, and a couple hundred pounds of decency (allegedly.) Also, Ritchie has lovely eyes, don’t he?

  7. int main (int argc, char **argv) {
        if (argc > 1) {
            printf(“There’s no arguing about it: Dennis Ritchie did some awesome stuff.n”);
        } else {
        return 0;

  8. The guy deserves credit for finding a use for every symbol in the ASCII character set, at the least. 

  9. He’s part of why I am where I am today. In 1981 I took a ‘C’ language programming job then promptly bought Kernighan&Ritchie’s ‘C’ Language book and set to work learning how to code in ‘C.’ It was a slim book, but interestingly enough it answered every ‘C’ programming question I had for the next decade and a half. I coded bugfixes for Kleitz’s ‘Scepter of Goth,’ the first commercial MMORPG, in ‘C’ and later coded the Unix Gopher client in this same language. If ‘C’ had not been as easy to learn and powerful as it was, had K&R not written an exemplary manual, I might not have managed to keep that first job, and the rest would have turned out differently. Thanks man.
    exit(0); //Exit without error.

  10. When my daughter went off to MIT, I gave her my copy of K&R, first edition.  For me, anyway, this was deeply symbolic, though I’m not sure she ever used it.  But now she’s graduated, I think I want it back :-)

  11. I taught C as an adjunct for a number of years — it was a blast.  AND THEY PAID ME!    Anyhow, at the end of one semester one of my students presented me with a 1st edition K&R.    I still have it somewhere.  It’s the only computer book I won’t toss, leave behind, or donate. 

    I’m sure if it weren’t for this guy I would have learned — and taught — some other language.  But I’m glad I didn’t have to.

  12. It’s hard to overstate the influence of C.  So much of the most important software running today is written with it.  Unix, Linux, Emacs, Apache, the most popular commercial and open source RDBMS systems.  Countless micro controllers and firmware.

    In his own words:

    “C is quirky, flawed, and an enormous success.”

    Love it or hate it, C is the software bedrock for most platforms.  And personally I love it.

    Rest in peace Mr. Ritchie.

  13. “Ritchie’s influence rivals Jobs’s; it’s just less visible”

    Ritchie’s influence far outweighs Jobs. Comparing the two is akin to comparing a world class inventor to a 2nd hand car salesmen.

    Dennis Ritchie was a real genius (unlike Steve Jobs) who actually changed our world and made it a better place.

    Thank you Mr. Ritchie for a brilliant legacy …

  14. Well you guys really shouldn’t be surprised Jobs is even getting more love, even here.

    Fame is determined by how many simple people know you, not your actual achievements or contributions.

    Making overpriced plastic crap that’s popular is much easier for the simple people to understand than what C or Unix are, even if almost everything they use in a day depend(s)(ed) on it. 

  15. as @satn said, no one cares who put the bricks, they just praise the owner of the building

  16. “As in certain cults it is possible to kill a process if you know its true name.” -dmr

    printf(“hello, afterworldn”);

  17. May God bless his soul.  He invented a double-edged sword.  Sometimes, it’s useful and sometimes the other edge has already got the user.

    C has been written by a certain mental set only like many other cryptic Unix commands; therefore, you either like it or leave it.
    Without C++, C could have already died.  Looking at a C++ program, you can tell who is writing in C and who is writing in C++.We can say one thing to the guy; you’ve left a legacy to argue about for the rest of our lives.

      1. No, I didn’t. I work in a Scientific High Performance Computing environment where the design of the whole system matters, a lot. I have used FORTRAN, C, and C++. I worked on Java, but I did not like it.  C++ is good enough where you can grow your design and utilize the flexibility and parsimony of C.

        What I meant is that, nobody talks much about C alone.  C++ is dominating. School don’t teach C alone anymore.

        1. I don’t know – I finished my informatics master in 2008, and there was a fair bit of C on the way.

          Personally, I work in bioinformatics now. The typical code is in R, or at least has an R frontend – but sometimes it’s a sheer joy to sit down and write something specific (and fast) in plain C. My csv-transposer could have been written in almost anything (apart from R, apparently; the builtin t() function was something like a few hundred times lower on a large matrix), but juggling an array of char pointers into an mmaped file was just … satisfying.  (And now I feel old, though I’m still under 30.)

    1. “Looking at a C++ program, you can tell who is writing in C and who is writing in C++.”

      That’s part of why I got out of coding in the early 1990’s.  Couldn’t wrap my head around the paradigm shift (well, didn’t care to really).  Found myself referencing data in Private space by offsetting pointers from the head of the data structure, knew it was time to get out…

  18. I was an intern at Alcatel-Lucent over the summer (formerly Lucent, and before that Bell Labs).

    All I did was hear about this guy from a few of the older folks working there.  I mean, I knew enough already, but…

    Favorite tribute I’ve seen so far:
    printf(“Goodbye, World!”);

  19. As apt, witty and clever comments go, I don’t think I’ll ever read better than the first one on here (printf(“Goodbye, World!”). Most likely written by a C programmer; expressing a lot in very few symbols.

  20. I’m saddened by the news. I had a few very nice interactions with dmr over email, and a relative of mine who was at Bell Labs and then Lucent for most of his career told me about his experience of occasionally having lunch with him. All available evidence points towards him being an all around excellent human being.

    C was the first language I learned. I still use it professionally almost daily. Every single day I at least use, if not develop on, operating systems that are either children or grand children of he and Thompson’s original Unix. The K&R book is in my opinion one of the finest programming language books ever written outside of Stevens or Knuth. The mix of reference and examples without spoon-feeding, talking-down, and molly-coddling is near perfection.

    It’s a shame that the timing of dmr’s death leads to comparisons to Steve Jobs. Just about the only thing they had in common was being awarded the National Medal of Technology. Dennis was brilliant, humble and self effacing. He created things, not to make massive amounts of money but because it was time for them. His true genius was in creating (or co-creating) those things so well that they’ve lasted for damn near 40 years with only (relatively) minor modifications.  I hardly think that using his death to go after some random businessman is really in the spirit of the thing.

    1. “It’s a shame that the timing of dmr’s death leads to comparisons to Steve Jobs.”

      Indeed – I wonder if now, every death of someone vaguely related to technology is going to be compared to Jobs, even when they’ve clearly achieved far more, in some morbid parody of the way every news article about phones has to have the obligatory Apple advert, even when it’s about a company that has sold far more than Apple.

      “I hardly think that using his death to go after some random businessman is really in the spirit of the thing.”

      Well, blame boingboing for making the comparison. I agree it would be better not too. (It was only a week ago that Apple fans were using Jobs’s death to evangelise about Apple products and put down other companies, which was rather distasteful too.)

  21. I am from India. Dennis Ritchie is the first name rings our ear. Author of C Language.
    Every Young engineer falls in love with him. First Love – Innocent and pure. R.I.P Sir Dennis.

  22. C as a language is a flawed pain in the arse.  But there is no denying that without it, there would be no UNIX as we understand it, no Linux, and presumably no Windows or OsX.   I’ve only ever dabbled in C, but a copy of K&R has made a point of being prominent in my tiny, cramped office forever.   I suppose that it is a fetish.

    As for his pointer being cast to null: incorrect.  References to him abound everywhere. 

    1. Well, the unix-y bits of OS X are mostly FreeBSD-based – so it’s both written in C, unix-inspired, and has a direct line of ancestry to the original UNIX. The Mach kernel is presumably C, too – and most of the rest is Objective C,  which is a descendant of C (in much the same way as C++ is).

      So, yeah: No OS X as we know it without his work.

      (edit: Asc- and desc- are sort of opposite things.)

  23. Aw man.. I remember a teacher at University likening C to a sports car, incredibly fast and nimble, but keep your head clear and look where you are going before you wrap yourself around a tree.. 

    This is a man worthy of remembering.. 

  24. K&R is just so much better than all the “Learn X in Y ${UNIT}s” and “X in An Incredibly Bloated Nutshell” books that followed it. The same is true for C and for UNIX in their fields as well. They’ve lasted and spread for good reason.

    Ritchie wasn’t a media personality so he won’t attract the same media attention as Jobs, but his achievements were more foundational and more pervasive.

    1. I put a printout of this outside his office at Bell Labs.  Someone had put up a huge “Dennis Ritchie 1941—2011” portrait à la in the main corridor near his office. 

    1. Someone should mark this occasion by brushing up on their C.

      (I mean really, mixing C and XML? Not cool.)

  25. I love Dennis
    Ritchie because of he is the designer of the C programming
    language and that makes us lives better.
    Thanks a lot Ritchie.
    May your soul rest in peace.

  26. His achievements rival Jobs’?

    That’s an understatement if I ever saw one.

    Shiny objects syndrome in full effect.

  27. May his soul rest in peace,  he is one of the great man world has seen,  thank you Dennis sir

  28. C is very clear and efficient programming language.   It looks like a excalibur sword that only great knives can lift from the stone.

  29. Thanks for the Wonderful piece of work and till today we are dependent on it…. we (C programmers) always remember you.

    1. “Surprisingly small “Unix beard” for someone so accomplished… ”

      He was a master of elegant understatement.

  30. >>It’s a shame that the timing of dmr’s death leads to comparisons to Steve Jobs.

    True, but pretty understandable as they both were held in very, very high regard by those who appreciated their work, both were pioneers in the computer/software industry and they died just days from one another.

    What’s more of a shame is the unrelenting and annoying use of cutesy c code epitaphs in discussions regarding his death.

    1. I don’t mind the c code epitaphs. At least they’re all clear and concise, not too many of them trying to be extra cute.

      Sadly, my copy of K&R 1st ed. was destroyed by water damage. It was my first programming language book, and I used it for ages. Very cleanly written with good examples.

  31. dont forget:
    free (ritchie);
    richie = NULL;

    Also, please can boingboing do a unix/terminal theme for a day.

  32. I’m a C++ programmer, by my heart and soul. I would be programming in Basic or Pascal if it wasn’t for this guy, so I owe him _a lot_!!!  Another giant, on whose shoulders we stand, has died. :( 
    I really wish they hadn’t done the “rivals” part. Mr Ritchie (hmm, I’m so used to think of him as K&R, strange to write as just one) and mr Jobs were both big men in their own rights, no point in comparing them (although Mr Ritchie would win for me, hands down).

  33. Ritchie invented the brick, the cement, the steel but everybody prefers to talk about the guy who invented a pretty doorknob.

  34. Elegant, powerful, simple, concise and wizardly.

    “Unix is simple. It just takes a genius to understand its simplicity.” – Dennis Ritchie

    “UNIX was not designed to stop its users from doing stupid things, as that would also stop them from doing clever things.” – Doug Gwyn

    Small is beautiful.

    Make each program do one thing well.

    Build a prototype as soon as possible.

    Choose portability over efficiency.

    Store data in flat text files.

    Use software leverage to your advantage.

    Use shell scripts to increase leverage and portability.

    Avoid captive user interfaces.

    Make every program a filter.

    A renaissance man in a very literal sense of the word who’s works were aimed at his equals and imagined a world in which individuals were well educated and relied on reasoning and their own  literacy.

    In comparison Jobs is high medieval scholastic, Great Cathedrals amidst squalor, Dogma, a high priesthood  and Argument from authority.

  35. I suspect Richard Stallman will have a slightly different reaction to this death than that of Steve Jobs

  36. His description of ‘software tools’ as part of the design of UNIX is one of the most clear-headed descriptions of a design philosophy I’ve ever read. He came from an era before the marginal personality types got into computing, and where you always worked with others. I’ve always respected him, even though I rarely dig into C anymore.

    One of the greatest computer scientists of his generation, and a huge argument for companies to INVEST IN SCIENCE, GODDAMN IT. He worked for the phone company. And changed the course of computing forever.

  37. In a way I’m glad it was something he’d been struggling with for a while and not some opportunistic infection. I’d hate to think that Dennis Ritchie had died of a bug.

  38. … I admired the man in true sense whose profound
    legacy lamented every field in computer technology…A moving tribute to
    Denis M Richie, we all build our success on his hard work a real
    foundation, an indeed mountainous achievement by Denis; remain permanent
    outpost for every new comer, developer and computer technology
    enthusiast. HE the MAN who shown the inner working. He will be always be
    Hello …. #include #include #define RIP 0int main() { printf(“33[2J33[;H”); /* Clear the screen */ printf(“nHello World — by D M Richienn”); printf(“Your legacy remain radiant, an emanating lights for thosen”); printf(“New and Young developer and an old timers those pass through”); printf(“your ERA – Denis M Richie.nn”); /* exit */ return (RIP); /* (EXIT_SUCCESS); */ } /******************* Rest in Peace. **********************/A True Genius only can be identified by Genius only…. not by every bystandard.

  39. Any word yet from the Vatican on starting the canonization process?  No one who would make a finer patron saint for programmers.

  40. C is ubiquitous today across industries and countries. If Dennis Ritchie and/or Bell Labs seeks roalties from using C, he’d be lot richer than Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Steve Jobs combined.

  41. Dennis Ritche is one of the real pioneer, most of the programming world just live under his shadow. Good bye

  42. Why mentioned it like Steve Jobs is not like Apple products or Android products are based on Unix or use C in any way shape of form?
    Oh wait!    They do!

    /* Dennis Ritchie Rest in Peace and Thank You! */

  43. A sad news.

    It feels like 10 years ago when I heard that Shannon had died: a true giant passed away without most of the world noticing it.

  44. How many people invent an Operating system such as Unix ? and a programming language such as C ? My respects to Dennis. RIP.

  45. I used to work for Prentice Hall, the publisher of K&R, in the international division, based in the UK. I can remember sometime in the early 80s – say 1983 – that sales really began to pick up in the London bookstores I was responsible for, with Foyles, Dillons and Modern Book Company alone each selling 100 copies a month steadily.

    I think the story internally was that the authors originally figured they would sell 5000 copies at most. I am pretty sure that by the time the second edition came along in 1988, ten years after the first, it had already sold a million copies worldwide. It must have been/be one of the most profitable books in history, as it is short and one colour so must be peanuts to print; yet looking on Amazon the official list price is $89! (I think it sold for around £20 even in 1983, though memory is fading).

  46. Dennis, without you my career would have been far less brighter.  You started a generation of coders that still use your work every day.  so long. 

  47. I must say technical world has lost  a genius , C is the first thing through which i got introduced to digital world , and same is true with most of us..  I was part of Alcatel-Lucent and bell labs , i worked in new jersy bell labs , where Ritchie acheived all those. I was proud of being with ALU and Bell labs because Ritchies association with it..

  48. Ritchie,
    Thanks for what you gave the world.
    Sorry I never got the chance to meet you.
    I worked at ALU (former Lucent, former AT&T) in The Netherlands and just retired.
    I visited Columbus numerous times.

  49. Hello World!!! That’s the first program I made using C. C is the first programming language I learned. It’s just basic language but it gonna blow your mind knowing that most of modern languages are based from C. Thanks for bringing C to the world. Rest in Peace

  50. You have to thank these guy for bringing the programming language that helped to change the world in unseen way. Most people who knows programming probably started with C. Really an inspiration in though never had that popularity like any other pioneers in Computer Science and Computer Industry. RIP Sir Dennis.

  51. I’m a fairly recent computer science graduate (2005) but the K&R book remains as one of the pathways that introduced me to the “think like a programmer” paradigm. The conventional wisdom with our professors was that, even though Java was prevalent, they preferred to introduce us to the beauty of programming with C. No fancy UI, just the algorithm and the code. It worked with less than half of the class; the basic C courses were widely known as the CompSci litmus test, and the attrition was high.

    As a humble nerd to another, far greater luminary, thank you Mr. Ritchie.

    And as to comparisons between Jobs and Ritchie, I’m no Apple fanboi, but I do think even as a non-engineer Jobs’ accomplishments cannot be denied. As others have said, Ritchie laid the unseen foundations that drive today’s inventions, and Jobs sold them to the customers, the “non-geeks”, the END USERS who don’t really give a bleep about pointers and such. And rightly so…

  52. About six years ago, I was doing some work in the same building as where Ritchie was working. I asked if I could have an hour of his time. He was the only person that I ever really wanted to meet. I fell in love with UNIX 24 years ago. To this day, I still prefer pretty much any UNIX flavor over anything else.

    When I finally met Ritchie, he was quite fascinated by the fact that a “young woman” could be so star struck by him. I say “young woman” only because I was in my 30s and didn’t consider myself so young.  :) Anyway, I explained my background and we chatted about the development he did early in his career. I said to him, “You do realize that you and your colleagues changed the world, right?” He responded with a humble remark. Looking back at the experience, I was lucky to have an hour with him.  For me, it was like meeting the “Roger Daltrey” of computer scientists. He was definitely a rock star. :)

    Many years before he and I met, I asked him if he, Kernighan,  and Thompson would sign a copy of one of their first publications. I sent the request via email and Ritchie’s assistant contacted me to say that if I sent the publication to her, that she would get it signed for me. I was shocked to receive the item back a week later in a FedEx envelope signed by all three gentlemen. That was more than 15 years ago.  Talk about cool! :) I still have that item in my office tucked away with a couple of books signed by Edward Gorey. :)

    I’m sad to see Ritchie leave us, but I feel lucky that we had him in the world.

    Godspeed Ritchie! xoxox

  53. Penguins everywhere morn the loss of one of the fathers of us all. Thanks for sharing, Dennis Ritchie.

  54. void()
      int year;
      for (year=1941; year<2011; year++)
        printf("Year %d, Ritchie creates and enhances the C languagen", year);
      printf("nYear %d, Dennis Ritchie RIPn", year);
      printf("Incredible. A milestone in computingn");

      while (1)
        printf("Year %d, Thanks a lot Dennisn", year);


  55. The sad fact is not only leaving of Dennis Ritchie, whether we see another one in our lifetime.
    Respect !!, RIP

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