It’s Sorta Funny

If you compile a list of modern-day computer pioneers, Dennis Ritchie would be on any short list. About the time I was at school, fascinated in the early hours (midnight to 4AM) of playing 3 dimensional tic-tac-toe with my printer (no terminals or screens!) on a now ancient HP3000, Ritchie was working at Bell Labs devising a language – called “C”, that he would with 1-2 others use to devise a portable operating system called Unix.

Which, with its  derivative Linux – today powers virtually every server on the Internet. And “C” is in many of the applications you use that access the Internet. From the driver that talks to your disk drive or SSD to the apps.

When Bell Telephone was one entity – “Ma Bell” – Bell Labs was an internationally renowned research center. Here’s just a few of its innovations.

So any research scientists there were just assumed to have a Phd.

And Dennis Ritchie was hired at Bell Labs with that assumption.

Only it turns out, he didn’t have one.

He should have had one, but for a disagreement at Harvard over who should pay for the bound version of his approved dissertation. Harvard would use this copy in a permanent addition to their library.

In his web page at Bell Labs, Ritchie had finessed the issue by writing “The subject of my 1968 doctoral thesis was subrecursive hierarchies of functions.”

The story was told by Robbert van Renesse, who had worked under Ritchie in 1990 on the distributed operating system Plan 9 at AT&T Bell Labs in Murray Hill.

In an article in the ACM SIGOPS Operating Systems Review, Renesse remembers how he’d started investigating whether Ritchie could be awarded the degree posthumously — soon learning that Bell Labs Alcatel Lucent had tried the same thing, only to discover that the university’s dean had stood firm. “At this point I threw in the towel, knowing that Dennis Ritchie actually would have enjoyed the irony of it all.”

But Ritchie’s classmate Meyer tells a story he’d heard from their advisor, Patrick Fischer. “As Pat tells the story, Dennis had submitted his thesis. It had been approved by his thesis committee, he had a typed manuscript of the thesis that he was ready to submit when he heard the library wanted to have it bound and given to them. And the binding fee was something noticeable at the time… not an impossible, but a nontrivial sum.” Dennis felt the library should pay for the bound copy that they themselves were going to keep, as Meyer heard the story, “And apparently, he didn’t give up on that. And as a result, never got a Ph.D.

“So he was more than ‘everything but thesis.’ He was ‘everything but bound copy.’”

As you are reading this from who-knows-where, know that the WordPress Server that is storing this sent it to your device, courtesy of Dennis Ritchie.

In related news, that dissertation that Harvard never got – was assumed to be lost for 50 years.

Recently the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley caught a glimpse of this forgotten moment in time, rediscovering a copy of Ritchie’s final dissertation which had been presumed lost for over half a century. Written in 1968, when he was just 27 years old, the paper is a chance to peek at the earliest days of computer science, to understand the challenges faced by pioneers who came before us, and appreciate an intellect that left behind a legacy we’re still building on today. But maybe it’s also a reminder of just how far we’ve come — and how much technology itself can change over the course of a single lifetime.

If you are ever in the Bay Area, even if you aren’t a computer geek I think you would find this museum interesting.

They have examples of computers going back to the early 20th century. They are in Mountain View, just down the road from one of Google’s first facilities.



Filed under Good Stuff, Humor, Small Stuff

2 responses to “It’s Sorta Funny

  1. When I visited, the museum also had an amusing exhibit on computer dating, featuring a Superman comic about the time Lois Lane got matched with a guy.

    The Dennis Ritchie story is great.

    • David –

      I was so impressed with these old machines they had running. The demo’ed the predecessor to the IBM 360 (forget model) but it was about 1959.

      The docent holds up this massive cable and plug – the plug had to be 8″ wide – and asks “What is its equivalent now?” – and holds up a USB cable.

      Gads I remember those – raised white flooring, the sound of massive cooling fans…

      I asked him where they got the parts for service and repair – he said…eBay!

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