Photo of Dennis Ritchie

Dennis Ritchie

  • National Medal of Technology and Innovation
  • Computer Science

For their invention of UNIX® operating system and the C programming language, which together have led to enormous growth of an entire industry, thereby enhancing American leadership in the Information Age.

While studying graduate-level applied mathematics at Harvard University, Dennis Ritchie worked at the computer center at the nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The more he worked with computers, the more fascinated he became with them.

And for that the computing industry – and anyone who uses the internet — can be eternally thankful.

In 1967, Ritchie took a job at Bell Labs, where he teamed with Kenneth Thompson to design operating systems that evolved to power everything from smartphones to search engines such as Google.

Ritchie was the designer of the C programming language and co-developed the Unix operating system with Thompson. Ritchie and another Bells Labs scientist, Brian Kernighan, authored the well-known book, “The C Programming Language,’’ which sold millions of copies. Ritchie said he saw value in simplifying computer programming, and C soon became the most popular programming language.

But while Ritchie’s revolutionary role is well-known to computer scientists, it is equally unknown to the rank and file of technology consumers.

“Ritchie was under the radar,’’ Smithsonian historian Paul Ceruzzi told The Washington Post upon Ritchie’s death in 2011. “His name was not a household name at all, but… if you had a microscope and could look in a computer, you’d see his work everywhere inside.’’

By Robert Warren