December 31, 2011, 7:36 AM — 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.