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Archive for October 12th, 2011

dmr (Dennis Ritchie)

What a sad week.

Rob Pike reports that Dennis Ritchie also has passed away. Ritchie was one of the pioneers of computer science, and a well-deserved Turing winner for his many contributions, notably the creation of C — by far the most influential programming language in history, and still going strong today.

Aside: Speaking of “still going strong,” this is a landmark week for the ISO Standard C Programming Language as well. Just a couple of days ago, the new C standard passed what turned out to be its final ballot,[*] and so we now have the new ISO C11 standard. C11 includes a number of new features that parallel those in C++11, notably a memory model and a threads/mutexes/atomics concurrency library that is tightly aligned with C++11. The new C standard should be published by ISO in the coming weeks.

[*] ISO rules are that if you pass the penultimate ballot with unanimous international support, you get to skip the formality of the final ballot and proceed directly to publication.

Bjarne Stroustrup made an eloquent point about the importance of Ritchie’s contributions to our field: “They said it couldn’t be done, and he did it.”

Here’s what Bjarne meant:

Before C, there was far more hardware diversity than we see in the industry today. Computers proudly sported not just deliciously different and offbeat instruction sets, but varied wildly in almost everything, right down to even things as fundamental as character bit widths (8 bits per byte doesn’t suit you? how about 9? or 7? or how about sometimes 6 and sometimes 12?) and memory addressing (don’t like 16-bit pointers? how about 18-bit pointers, and oh by the way those aren’t pointers to bytes, they’re pointers to words?).

There was no such thing as a general-purpose program that was both portable across a variety of hardware and also efficient enough to compete with custom code written for just that hardware. Fortran did okay for array-oriented number-crunching code, but nobody could do it for general-purpose code such as what you’d use to build just about anything down to, oh, say, an operating system.

So this young upstart whippersnapper comes along and decides to try to specify a language that will let people write programs that are: (a) high-level, with structures and functions; (b) portable to just about any kind of hardware; and (c) efficient on that hardware so that they’re competitive with handcrafted nonportable custom assembler code on that hardware. A high-level, portable, efficient systems programming language.

How silly. Everyone knew it couldn’t be done.

C is a poster child for why it’s essential to keep those people who know a thing can’t be done from bothering the people who are doing it. (And keep them out of the way while the same inventors, being anything but lazy and always in search of new problems to conquer, go on to use the world’s first portable and efficient programming language to build the world’s first portable operating system, not knowing that was impossible too.)

Thanks, Dennis.

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