Passing Shots – 2

  • 14 December 2011
Passing Shots – 2

Passing Shots – 2

James Bradley

December 14th, 2011

This October, two technology notables passed away: Steve Jobs and Dennis Ritchie. It occasioned a huge outpouring of responses, particularly for Jobs (posts in the millions), some for Dennis Ritchie and a few about both.

Everyone reading this will know who Steve Jobs was, but is much more likely that these readers would not know who Dennis Ritchie was (or why they should know or even care).

There is a likelihood you’d know Ritchie if you worked in IT, Internet or Web space. To use another frame of reference (at the risk of a somewhat gross generalization), one could say that every time your finger glides over or taps the surface of your iPhone or iPod to interact with one of those elegant, smart devices so successfully developed and marketed by Steve Jobs, you should think of Dennis Ritchie.  He is one of the key contributors to the underlying framework, the enabling technologies that make the Apple Empire what it is.

Ritchie wrote the C programming language and co-developed the UNIX operating system (with Ken Thompson). The C language family remains among the top two or three most popular programming languages in the world; and UNIX led to Linux. 

Ritchie’s work in the late 60’s and early 70’s ushered in a new era of mini-computer and PCs that made possible the computer devices that we buy from companies like Apple. The Apple OS is based in UNIX. Many of the applications that run on these devises (in the OS) were written in C (or its cousins and descendants). It should also be noted that the World Wide Web was itself credited to a certain Berners-Lee who worked on a UNIX-based NeXT computer (donated by a certain S. Jobs). And, furthermore, the majority of websites currently run in LINUX, which is directly derived from UNIX. 

Detecting a certain pattern or synergy here? We return to Jobs and Apple to complete the connections with Dennis Ritchie (and others of his ilk), who labored in the shadow of more famous and publically prominent individuals.  Ritchie developed and contributed to the world what can be thought of as “enabling” technologies.  As has been the case in numerous historical instances, the enablers were usually over-shadowed by the appliers, those who saw the applicability of the tools and processes and pushed them to public adoption.

After surveying dozens of posts following the deaths of both Jobs and Ritchie, I was struck by the impressive reflection of the values of the people who posted, as well as the values ascribed to the principals themselves. Or, if not their own personal values, what they represented to those who responded to their passing. 

The posts that compared the two are the most revealing perhaps since the frames of reference range from journalistic obit to historical reflection.  In more than one blog, Jobs is compared to Thomas Edison and Ritchie gets paralleled with Nikola Tesla. There is even a post that asks people for similar kinds of pairings, producing Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray, Newton and Leibniz. The most surprising post offered a comparison between Jobs and Martin Luther King. Really!

I believe the most productive historical comparisons would be Jobs and Edison weighed against Ritchie and Tesla.

“After witnessing the media fervor and outpouring of praise on social networks by tens of millions for Jobs, and nothing close to that for Ritchie, one name came to my mind: Nikola Tesla… In case you didn’t know, Tesla perfected the alternating current system (AC) that allows you to flip a switch and get light in your house. He also created a motor that could be run on AC, and that became the basis for all the other motors that are in the appliances in your house. Oh yeah, he also filed the first radio patent, not Marconi…Tesla’s inventions have been kind of a big deal for the past century or so…They’re things we just take for granted, but we shouldn’t

Tesla worked as an assistant to Thomas Edison. Edison died rich and famous. Tesla died poor and mostly unknown. Jobs died a famous multi-billionaire. I can’t say for sure how wealthy Ritchie was, but it’s an easy assumption that he wasn’t as wealthy as Jobs and he didn’t garner a smidgen of the notoriety.”

As Paul Ceruzzi, a Smithsonian historian, points out amidst the flurry of comparisons following both Jobs and Ritchie’s deaths, that they were “sort of apples and oranges” — “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 to complement that description, we have the following from Chris Kelly and Gabriella Coleman:

“The difference in their legacies is instructive. One of them created a brand, a way of life, and a slick, safe and intuitive experience sold to millions of people. The other created an infrastructure through which generations of engineers, programmers, hackers and entrepreneurs have come to understand what computers are capable of doing. Both were revered by those in the IT industry and they both created great things. But only one is being lionized [sic] in the public eye…We might want to rethink that.” 

We should not take people like Ritchie (or Tesla either) for granted. Yet it is Jobs (and Edison before him) that is lionized and lauded. It makes for better media, marketing and hype, but is it the set of values we want to promote among our peers or our children?

Dennis Richie was not an “also-ran.” He was one of the great Enablers of our time (most recent couple of generations). Furthermore, he contributed directly (and indirectly) to Jobs’ success, which fact should also elevate our need to question what others may make such successes possible.

Scrutiny of important technological advances in our global society clearly reveals a predictable mix of the prominent and the little known. Even closer inspection provides sufficient justification to see Jobs in the shade of Ritchie’s tree, not the other way around.

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