Dennis Ritchie: Remembering Another Computing Genius

Dennis Ritchie, inventor of the computer programming language C and one of the founders of Unix, passed away last week. Writing in The Washington Post, Paul Ceruzzi, a historian of computers, compares Ritchie's impact on the inner workings of computers to that of Steve Jobs on their exterior design. Tech sites like Slashdot have underscored how Ritchie made possible programming across platforms, including Mac and Windows, and thus personal computing as we know it. "Had he been a patent hound, he'd have died a rich man," one Slashdot contributor writes. 

Ritchie is not the only programming pioneer to be widely honored by the mainstream media only at death. See the New York Times' tributes to (for example) Jack Wolf, Jacob T. Schwartz, Ken Kennedy, Amir Pnueli, Edsger Dijkstra, Robert W. Bemer, and John Cocke. A common theme of these biographies is how many of the pioneers were connected with the agencies of the Department of Defense and major industrial research organizations including Ritchie's lifelong employer Bell Labs and IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center (whose most famous researcher was Benoit Mandelbrot).

This is not to diminish Steve Jobs. I've argued elsewhere that in some ways he was the superior of Thomas Edison. But these lives serve to remind us of the missing slice of Apple: a commitment to basic research -- something that is present to a much greater degree in Microsoft and Google

Apple's admirers like Fareed Zakaria actually praise the company's relative neglect of basic resarch:

It is not a company that focuses on pathbreaking science and spews out new inventions and patents. The 2010 Booz & Co. ranking of companies by their expenditures on research and development places Apple 81st. As a percentage of its revenue, the company spends less than half of what the typical computer and electronics company does and a fifth of what Microsoft spends. Apple's innovations are powerful and profound, but they are often in the realms of design, consumer use and marketing.

The true engines of innovation more recently have been academia (which gave us Google) and military programs (which indirectly gave us the Siri natural language feature of the iPhone 4S). The difference was that Bell's triumphs like Ritchie's programming ultimately benefited scores of entrepreneurs, while Apple discontinued development of Siri for the Android and BlackBerry platforms after buying the company. Whatever the future refinements of Apple products for end users, the company is far less likely than previous giants to give us fundamental development tools If there is a Great Stagnation, we must look to the spirit of classic Bell Labs, and people like Ritchie, rather than to Apple to overcome it.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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