It's been a rough year for the IT industry. The death of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs in October grabbed international headlines. But we also lost other major figures from almost every area of technology, including Xerox PARC founder Jacob E. Goldman, who died in late December. Here's one last look at some of the people who made a big difference.
Dennis M. Ritchie
Godfather of Unix, Father of C
September 1941 - October 2011
Arguably the most influential programmer of the past 50 years, Dennis Ritchie helped create the Unix operating system, designed the C programming language. And he promoted both, starting in the 1970s.
Ritchie worked closely with Unix designer Ken Thompson starting in 1969, integrating work by other members of the Bell Labs research group. And in 1971, when Thompson wanted to make Unix more portable, Ritchie radically expanded a simple language Thompson had created, called B, into the much more powerful C. Just how influential has all that work been? Unix spawned lookalikes such as Linux and Apple's OS X, which run devices ranging from smartphones to supercomputers. And by one account, eight of today's top 10 programming languages are direct descendants of C. (Read more about Unix in Computerworld's 40th anniversary of Unix package.)
While Ritchie was serious about Unix and its potential for creating a computing community, he knew better than to take himself too seriously. He quipped that Unix was simple, "but you have to be a genius to understand the simplicity." And Ritchie wasn't above an office prank. In 1989, he and Bell Labs cohort Rob Pike, with the help of magicians Penn and Teller, played an elaborate practical joke on their Nobel prize-winning boss, Arno Penzias. (You can see the prank in this video clip.)
A Knack for Encryption
July 1932 - June 2011
Among the Bell Labs researchers who worked on Unix with Thompson and Ritchie was Bob Morris, who developed Unix's password system, math library, text-processing applications and crypt function.
Morris joined the Bell Labs research group in 1960 to work on compiler design, but by 1970 he was interested in encryption. He found a World War II U.S. Army encryption machine, the M-209, in a Lower Manhattan junk shop. Morris, Ritchie and University of California researcher Jim Reeds developed a way to break the machine's encryption system and planned to publish a paper on the subject in 1978.
Before they did, they sent a copy to the National Security Agency, the U.S. government's code-breaking arm -- and soon received a visit from a "retired gentleman from Virginia," according to Ritchie. The "gentleman" didn't threaten them, but he suggested discretion because the encryption techniques were still being used by some countries. The researchers decided not to publish the paper -- and eight years later, Morris left to join the NSA, where he led the agency's National Computer Security Center until 1994.
Ironically, it was Morris's son, Robert Tappan Morris, who brought him into the national spotlight: In 1988, the younger Morris, then 22, released an early computer worm that brought much of the Internet to its knees. The senior Morris said at the time that he hadn't paid much attention to his son's interest in programming: "I had a feeling this kind of thing would come to an end the day he found out about girls," he said. "Girls are more of a challenge."
Intelligence, Artificial and Otherwise
September 1927 - October 2011
He may be best known as the creator of the Lisp programming language and as the "father of artificial intelligence" (he coined the term in 1956), but John McCarthy's influence in IT reached far beyond would-be thinking machines. For example, in 1957 McCarthy started the first project to implement time-sharing on a computer, and that initiative sparked more elaborate time-sharing projects including Multics, which in turn led to the development of Unix.
In an early 1970s presentation, McCarthy suggested that people would one day buy and sell goods online, which led researcher Whitfield Diffie to develop public-key cryptography for authenticating e-commerce documents. In 1982, McCarthy even proposed a "space elevator" that was eventually considered by a government lab as an alternative to rockets.
But McCarthy's first love was A.I., which turned out to be harder than he first thought. In the 1960s, McCarthy predicted that, with Pentagon funding, working A.I. would be achieved within a decade. It wasn't -- as McCarthy later joked, real A.I. would require "1.8 Einsteins and one-tenth of the resources of the Manhattan Project."