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October 22, 2011

Technology world lost a true innovator earlier this month

Someone once complained that "Life is not fair." Actually, I bet millions of people have said that, one time or another, including me.

Maybe some other sage should add "Death is not fair, either."

Sadly, I noticed a glaring example of it earlier last week.

If you remember _ how could you forget _ Steve Jobs recently died. He was an enormous figure in the technology world, a great designer, innovator, showman and businessman.

His death, though not unexpected, as he had been seriously sick on and off for quite a while, made headlines everywhere. I don't begrudge that to him. He accomplished a lot.

You may have noticed that I didn't call him a great technologist, or inventor. I don't really think he was. I think he used technology developed by others to create products.

There is nothing wrong with that, either. Many people do that, all the time.

The thing that kind of irks me is that on Oct. 12 another person who existed in the tech world passed away, too. His name was Dennis Ritchie. But his death received scant coverage.

Of course, his wasn't a household name, like Jobs' was, unless you're talking about truly geeky houses.

But it should have been.

I think he contributed much more to the world than Steve Jobs did, and in comparison his passing went all but unnoticed.

You see, while Jobs brought us Macintosh computers, Ritchie brought us the operating system called Unix.

Jobs brought us innovative phones and tablets, but Ritchie brought us the computer programming language called "C", which was what pretty much started computer programming in general.

By the way, it was called "C" because it was subsequent to the language called "B". Marketing hadn't yet taken over the world back then.

Anyway, let me fill you in a little bit about Ritchie.

He was born in Bronxville, and graduated from Harvard with degrees in physics and math.

He went to work at Bell Labs in the 1960s.

While working there he created the C language and was a partner with Ken Thompson developing the Unix operating system.

Let me put Unix in perspective for you. It's a computer operating system, software that ties all the parts of a computer together and makes everything work.

It's been around since the '70s, and could be said to be the basis of most of the operating systems we have today.

Along with its derivatives, descendants and lookalike operating systems, they pretty much run all the world's computers.

They play a central part in the fastest supercomputers in the world.

They run Google's search engines and Wall Street's automatic stock transaction computers. They power most of the servers on the Internet.

They even run Macintosh computers, and scale down to run your Android phone, and even Jobs' iPhones.

So, when you stop to consider the overall impact that the development of Unix had, you see that it's enormous.

And that wasn't the only thing Ritchie is known for.

Don't forget that in order to do anything with a computer, you need a computer program. His C programming language (and again, its descendant languages) are what programmers use to make all the applications that you and I use every day.

So, I would venture to say that every time you use a computer, and that includes Apple's computers, to do almost anything, both the operating system and the application program result from pioneering work by Dennis Ritchie.

At the end of all this, I'd say that we should hold Ritchie in much higher regard than Jobs.

Ritchie was a real pioneering technologist and inventor.

Bruce Endries is former systems manager at The Daily Star. He can be reached by e-mail at His columns can be found at

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