A couple of weeks ago I delivered a speech at Leiden Toastmasters about Dennis Ritchie, an unsung hero of our time.
Who amongst you have heard about Bill Gates or Steve Jobs?
Tonight I want to begin by taking you on a walk through history.
In 1985 Bill Gates introduced the first version of Microsoft Windows. Thanks to this operating system, personal computing became useable for the masses. Until then, computers were expensive and only corporations had access to them. A few years later, it became common to see one computer in each household. It could be described as a democratization of personal computing.
Five years ago, Steve Jobs announced the iPhone. A smart phone that completely changed the paradigm of what was possible in a phone and shifted the focus of what a phone was. It was not anymore a device to receive calls, but a personal computing device that on top of calling was able to do many more things.
Early 2010, this device did not exist. This is an iPad and when Steve Jobs presented it, he radically changed again the personal computing experience spurring a growth in competition in the hardware market with copycats and in the software market with developers creating new applications for the iPad.
There are people who are gifted enough to see things in a different way and have the guts, energy and drive to change the world and make their dreams come true. or in the words of Vaclav Havel:
“Vision is not enough. It must be combined with venture. It is not enough to stare up the steps, we must step up the stairs.”
It is easy to understand that both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs did it by creating things that were disruptive from the user point of view, as their products radically changed our daily lives.
Unfortunately, on October 5, 2011 Steve Jobs passed away and the world lost a visionary. The news rapidly spread and rivers of ink were written extolling his achievements and persona.
On October 12, 2011, a week after Steve Jobs death, Dennis Ritchie passed away. Almost no media attention, and I guess not many people in this room know who Dennis Ritchie was.
Fellow Toastmasters and dear guests, tonight I do not want to talk about Steve Jobs, or Bill Gates. Tonight I want to have a thought for Dennis Ritchie, an unsung hero, a giant on whose shoulders Bill Gates and Steve Jobs stood to see farther than others and change the world.
But who was Dennis Ritchie?
Dennis Ritchie was a nerd, he didn’t make consumer market products and yet all of you benefit from his work. Every day, all the time.
Dennis Ritchie was the co-creator of a programming language called C, which changed the way in which people tell machines what to do. That by itself is a great contribution to the world as most of the modern programming languages have evolved from it. You program an iPhone or an iPad in a language that derives directly from C.
Dennis Ritchie will also be remembered as the co-creator of Unix. An operating system that changed the world of big computing at the time, and inspired current operating systems such as Linux or the one that runs on Apple’s devices (iPhone, iPad and Macs).
All this may sound very remote, abstract and disconnected from your daily lives. You may be thinking what is in it for me?
Nevertheless, Dennis Ritchie was right when he said: “It’s not the actual programming that’s interesting,” “It’s what you can accomplish with the end results.”
That is why I wanted to give you a few examples of how Dennis Ritchie’s creations affect your daily lives.
If you have flown in a plane, the autopilot system and the instrumental landing system have been programmed in C. If you have a pacemaker or you go for an MRI, the software that makes it work has been programmed in C. If you are in a car, the ABS system, the car electronics that control the power steering and the airbag deployment system have been programmed in C. Your phones, no matter whether it is an old Nokia or a flashy last model smartphone, have been developed using C. When you go online and use a browser to check your email or buy a flight, the browser itself has been programmed in C and most of the Internet servers are running on operating systems derived from the Unix that Dennis Ritchie co-created.
As Computer historian Paul E. Ceruzzi said after his death: "Ritchie was under the radar. His name was not a household name at all, but... if you had a microscope and could look in a computer, you'd see his work everywhere inside."
And this fellow Toastmasters, is why I wanted to raise your awareness about a man who deeply changed the world we live in. He left us a week after Steve Jobs passed away but nobody paid attention... yet Dennis Ritchie was the giant on whose shoulders Steve Jobs stood to create all the consumer devices that wowed the world.