Editorial: Ritchie’s accomplishments rival those of Steve Jobs

Editorial Board

One week ago today, while the world was busy mourning the loss of Steve Jobs, a different man passed away who was perhaps far more important to the computing world. Dennis MacAlistair Ritchie was an American computer scientist who designed two important computer technologies, without which the computing world would be a very different place today.

He is the co-inventor of C (the successor of B), which is today one of the most popular programming languages in the world, that is used to program everything from fighter jets to kitchen microwaves. He also worked with his partner Ken Thompson to develop the Unix operating system, whose free descendent Linux now powers the majority of the Web servers that allow you to experience the World Wide Web.

The sad thing was that outside the programming community, almost no attention was paid to Ritchie’s passing. A few newspapers wrote briefs about his death, he was mentioned on the back page of the New York Times business section and stories about him appeared on some popular technology websites. But he was not praised around the world for his accomplishments by every person that uses computers in the same way that Jobs was praised by the millions that tote i-Devices.

When most of the success of personal computing is based on Ritchie’s work and most software today is still written in some variant of C such as C, C++ or C#, we think Ritchie deserves just as much recognition as Jobs. Jobs succeeded by being in the right place at the right time with the right people. He was an extraordinary manager and CEO, but it took many hundreds of people to build the marvel that is Apple Inc. — it was not a one-man effort.

Everyone needs to examine whom they idolize. Do you idolize someone for their amazing personal accomplishments or is it because you saw them on CNN or MTV? Fifty years ago we briefly idolized a group of men who drove Corvettes, flew fighter jets and walked on the moon. Last week we briefly idolized a man who changed the way we interact with computers. But there will always be many unsung heroes.

The people who designed the miniature components of the first iPhone, the people who designed the rockets and bent metal to get our astronauts into space and the people who design each component in our cars deserve to be recognized, though few ever are. Dennis Ritchie is one of those unsung heroes, a man whose accomplishments rival those of Steve Jobs or Bill Gates but whose quiet work never drew the spotlight. There are many people who deserve to have their faces on the front of Time Magazine, Wired.com and Apple.com, but few ever do.