Photo of Kenneth L. Thompson

Kenneth L. Thompson

  • 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.

Kenneth Lane Thompson never anticipated creating an operating system that would become one of the bedrocks upon which modern computing is built. But that’s just what happened after he and colleague Dennis Ritchie developed the Unix operating system.

“I did it as a backlash against the bad operating systems of the day,” Thompson told The San Francisco Chronicle in 2011, on the occasion of being presented, along with Ritchie, with the Japan Prize for their ground-breaking work. “We were just trying to get something better to get our own work done.”

Thompson, who holds bachelors’ and masters’ degrees in electrical engineering and computer science from the University of California at Berkeley, joined other programmers at Bell Labs in the 1960s in creating a simpler, more portable operating system.

The Unix system was wildly successfully. In fact, many of today’s computers run on descendants of the Unix operating system.

Thompson and Bell colleague Joe Condon also built the world champion chess-playing computer, named Belle, which became the first to attain a master rating, according to his bio compiled by the Association of Computing Machinery. Belle was donated to the Smithsonian.

Thompson retired from Bell Labs in 2000. Since 2006 he has been a “distinguished engineer’’ at Google, where he helped write the Go programming language.

By Bob Warren