October 14, 2011
Dennis Ritchie, technical writer
Dennis Ritchie, the co-inventor of Unix and of the C programming language, died this week. There are many, many eloquent tributes to Dr. Ritchie, who was both a seminal figure in computer science and, it seems, a nice guy.
Among his accomplishments, as people note, was thtat Ritchie was an excellent writer. Here's the New York Times:
“There was a remarkable precision to his writing,” Mr. Kernighan said, “no extra words, elegant and spare, much like his code.”Of course, this is most evident in what might be the most famous programming book, namely The C Programming Language, which Ritchie wrote with Brian Kernighan:
The book is widely regarded as one of the best programming tutorials ever written: a complete introduction to C in 228 pages (1st edition). K&R, as it's known, is a much-beloved book, having a place in the hearts of programmers that Strunk & White does in the hearts of writers. (It helps, of course, that the C language itself is sparse, but this simply underscores that Ritchie understood economy of style in more than one field.) A page on
the Bell Labs siteBrian Kernighan's site shows the many translations of K&R into languages other than English.
The style of coding that Kernighan and Ritchie used in their book became a model for how to write C programs. Likewise the writing style in K&R had wide influence on how programming books came to be written, and many a book has strived to be "the K&R of ______" for a particular programming language.
K&R is also responsible for what's surely the best-known example in programming circles, namely "Hello, World". As represented in K&R, it looks like this:
main()The term "Hello, World" has entered the lexicon of programming to mean the first example for any programming language. Wikipedia includes an entry that shows "Hello, World" examples for 59 programming languages, from ActionScript to Visual Basic.
In fact, "hello world" has come to mean the first or simplest example for how to start learning most anything. Some examples:
Sometimes you just have to marvel at people's achievements. Dennis Ritchie helped to write the foundational programming language of the modern era, helped launch the operating system that's the backbone of the Internet, and oh, yeah, helped define modern documentation style. How cool is that?