I am not sure if it is an unfortunate coincidence or a sadistic prank by fate that three popular figures of the IT industry who died this month were all pioneers in their respective fields. If you don’t know who Steve Jobs is, I may be able to understand but you would have to be living under a rock to not know of his sad demise. While Steve Jobs died, after a long fight with pancreatic cancer, on 5th October 2011, exactly 1 week later a greater legend breathed his last. Dennis Ritchie the creator of Unix and the C programming language was found dead in his home on 12th October 2011. As if the loss to the digital world wasn’t devastating enough, 12 days later, on 24th October, John McCarthy, the inventor of LISP and the concept of Artificial Intelligence, logged out of the world.
Steve Jobs, founder of Apple Inc which introduced path-breaking products like Macintosh,iPhone and iPad was a visionary and a genius combining artist perfection and latest technology to build awe-inspiring consumer products. No wonder the web is over-flowing with obituaries to him. However, Dennis Ritchie and John McCarthy were scientists, hence not very popular with the global consumer community which now means everyone online except the programmers still typing in code into the dark-as-death consoles of Unix terminals. May be I am exaggerating it a bit but I wonder if anyone can dispute the fact that the contribution of Dennis Ritchie to the computing world was incalculably greater than, its acknowledged. After all he was the creator of both C programming language and Unix. Most, if not all operating systems including Unix,Linux, OS X and most likely, Windows were made using C programming language and half the operating systems including OS X were built upon Unix architecture. C is not just an old language from which most modern languages such as Ruby and Python are derived, it is also one of the most powerful language that continues to be popular even in its pristine form. And in the programming world Dennis Ritchie’s continues to be a legend. Tim O’Reilly the founder of O’Reilly Media in his post has called for dedicating 30th October 2011 as Dennis Ritchie Day..
Here I must confess that prior to the news of his death, I didn’t know much about John McCarthy. I was familiar with the name of course and we all know what Artificial Intelligence means. I presumed the term to have been of ancient origin and I wasn’t completely wrong making that presumption, scientifically it meant a very abstract concept,food for futuristic movie makers and fiction writers. What I did not know is that it was John McCarthy who coined the term “Artificial Intelligence” and sought to implement it by making “intelligent machines”. He created the second oldest high level computer language, LISP, which continues to be associated with AI strongly. Interestingly, John McCarthy doesn’t seem to have done much in the field of Dennis Ritchie nor did the latter venture into McCarthy’s field. However, some of his conceptual contributions to general programming, through LISP include, conditionals (if-then-else), Garbage Collection ( imagine garbage collection in 60s! ) and a whole list of contributions which can be found here
However, Compatibility Time Sharing System , his association with DARPA which later led to creation of the Internet, and concept of Artificial Intelligence are considered McCarthy’s greatest contributions. Finally, I think John McCarthy was one of the earliest bloggers, sharing his thoughts through web pages dating back further than 1995 . So when John McCarthy died on 24th October, he became the third member of the triad of visionaries who revolutionized computing and influenced are lives immensely. I would like to humbly pay tribute to the geniuses and I believe all Mindfireans feel the same way. Let me remind you one more time that Tim O’Reilly has called for dedicating this Sunday as Dennis Ritchie’s Day.
Author: Danish Ahmed