Dennis M. Ritchie, who helped shape the modern digital era by creating software tools that power everything from search engines like Google to smartphones, was found dead Wednesday at his home in Berkeley Heights, N.J. He was 70.
Ritchie, who lived alone, had been in frail health in recent years after treatment for prostate cancer and heart disease, said his brother Bill.
In the late 1960s and early ’70s, working at Bell Labs, Ritchie made a pair of lasting contributions to computer science. He was the principal designer of the C programming language and co-developer of the Unix operating system, working closely with Ken Thompson, his longtime Bell Labs collaborator. The C programming language, a shorthand of words, numbers and punctuation, is still widely used today, and successors like C++ and Java build on the ideas, rules and grammar that Ritchie designed. The Unix operating system has similarly had a rich and enduring impact. Its free, open-source variant Linux powers many of the world’s data centers, like those at Google and Amazon, and its technology serves as the foundation of operating systems, like Apple’s iOS, in consumer computing devices.
“The tools that Dennis built — and their direct descendants — run pretty much everything today,” said Brian Kernighan, a computer scientist at Princeton University who worked with Ritchie at Bell Labs.
Those tools were more than inventive bundles of computer code. The C language and Unix reflected a point of view, a different philosophy of computing than what had come before. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, minicomputers were moving into companies and universities — smaller and at a fraction of the price of hulking mainframes.
Minicomputers represented a step in the democratization of computing, and Unix and C were designed to open up computing to more people and collaborative working styles. Ritchie, Thompson, and their Bell Labs colleagues were making not merely software but, as Ritchie once put it, “a system around which fellowship can form.”