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Die Götter Unsere Zeit

Week of February 30, 2000

In the beginning was C, there was nothing before C, it was all dark and murky. Faceless silhouettes walked long dusky corridors carrying reams of paper no one could understand and things worked well but no one knew why and everyone held their breath. With C there was light. Brian Kernighan introduced us to the genius of Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie and an era was born. When Thompson and Ritchie went to the Thomas J. Watson Research Center the world blew wide open. Suddenly we had hierarchical file systems, we had call by value, we had bitwise operators, we had streams of bytes, we had common sense - and we had light.

Far away someone called Gary Kildall wrote a dinky system written in a funny language for Intel and it was not understood to be anything until Intel's top engineers jumped ship with the treasures from the hold in their pockets and founded Zilog - and then the nerds reveled, for finally they could take out a screwdriver at home and play mainframe mechanic. Bill Gates quit school and Paul Allen wrote a fancy emulator and Bill took it to Texas and sold it. MBASIC. About as far from the hallowed corridors of Bell Labs CSRC as you can imagine.

There are seven floors at the CSRC. The CSRC is off on the right of the building on Mountain Avenue, one flight up. There is no lift. One day Steve Johnson had arrived from Cambridge and saw a funny guy looking a little like Billy Gibbons climbing the stairs - over and over again - and he was huffing and puffing. What are you doing? asked Steve. Got to get to the converter hall on seven, said Billy Gibbons. Got to convert this tape, we're trying to port something to the Interdata on the ground floor.

It was Dennis Ritchie, and they'd already got UNIX running on the PDP, now the Interdata I32 stood next in line. Steve Johnson thought it was too much strain for Dennis to jump around like that all day. Get an idea, compile it, out to tape, run up six flights, convert it, bounce down seven, insert it, it doesn't work, crawl back up one flight and start all over.

There's got to be an easier way, thought Steve.

There's got to be an easier way, said Steve out loud.

What's that, asked Dennis.

Well just watch this, said Steve.

Steve 'discovered' that C was portable. Dennis Ritchie, the man who made it out of Ken Thompson's B, had not had a clue: he'd been running up and down seven flights of stairs since before his foot-long beard started to grow. Steve invented the 'Portable C Compiler Machine' - pccm - and he changed the assembly algorithms too. Dennis had been using recursion (his doctorate was entitled 'Hierarchies of Sub-Recursive Functions' so of course he had) but Steve's compiler was self-optimizing, calculating all possible interpretations of an expression and then counting the stores and fetches associated with each and chosing the one with the fewest - voila. Optimized. Already.

And as C was portable, so was UNIX. And Steve estimated that 94% of C was portable. And we all take this for granted today. And the man who relates these funny tales is not Steve Johnson, but Dennis Ritchie. The man who looked like a fool huffing and puffing on the stairs.

Several years earlier Ken Thompson had asked for a PDP to play with but got a categorical no. One day he met Joe Osanna in the corridor, who suggested Ken bait management with the promise of a WORD PROCESSOR, and Ken felled the immortal, WHAT'S A WORD PROCESSOR? Ken went off and uttered the magic words and the effect was so powerful that Ken was given not one but two PDPs to play with, and UNIX was all but born.

Dennis Ritchie, Joe Osanna, Doug McElroy, Al Aho, Ravi Sethi, Lorinda Cherry - and of course Brian W Kernighan: these are the gods of our time, die Götter unsere Zeit. The Bocuses of the art. Compared with them, little Billy Boy is just another patty flapper in a Ray Croc franchise: no matter how much money you make selling Big Macs, you're never going to be Paul Bocuse.

Before them, there was nothing. It was dark. And since them, not much has happened either. But it's getting darker again, all the time. The memory of them is the only light.

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