Forty years after they invented the UNIX computer operating system at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, Berkeley Heights resident Dr. Dennis Ritchie and Dr. Kenneth Thompson will receive the Japan Prize.
“I was surprised. I was not expecting this,” Ritchie said in a telephone interview. “It was so far back.”
He explained the two aspects he and Thompson worked on were based on an earlier language. “It did not come out of the blue,” he said. They modified a language that was initially developed at MIT, he said, which later became the C language.
The $600,000 award will be presented on April 20 in Tokyo to both scientists, who will divide it. Ritchie said Thompson flew to Japan for the announcement, but Ritchie sent his response by video from Bell Labs.
He plans to use his part of the proceeds to fly his siblings and spouses to Japan for the event. None of his siblings pursued engineering or science, he said. One brother is a retired superintendent of schools in the Boston area, another brother and his wife run a toy company in the Washington, DC area and he has a sister who has lived in England for many years.
Ritchie, 69, has lived in Berkeley Heights for 15 years. He was born in Bronxville, NY, grew up in Summit and attended Summit High School before going to Harvard University. While there, he attended a lecture on the concept of computers and became intrigued. He shifted his focus from physics to computer programming. He recalled seeing his first computer, which he described as “a big square cubicle box.” He was a graduate student in Applied Mathematics, with a 1968 doctoral thesis on subrecrusive hierarchies of functions. “I like procedural languages better than functional ones,” he has said.
Ritchie joined Bell Labs in 1967, where his father, Alistair E. Ritchie, spent his career. The elder Ritchie was co--author of “The Design of Switching Circuits,” with W. Keister and S. Washburn, an influential book that came out just before the transistor era. Asked if he could have envisioned the rapid technological changes today, Dennis Ritchie said, “I’m not a futurologist.” Ritchie retired from Bell Labs in 2007, but continues as an emeritus staff member.
He met Thompson while working at Bell Labs, now Alcatel-Lucent, in Murray Hill. Thompson, 67, who grew up in New Orleans, had already experimented with a language for personal computers, emphasizing simplicity. Together they developed the UNIX system which became so popular in part because it was distributed to universities and research institutions and became known as “open source” computing. Thompson now works with Google in California.
Both men received the U.S. National Medal of Technology Award from President Bill Clinton as well as numerous commendations for their work.
“Dennis and Ken changed the way people used, thought and learned about computers and computer science,” Jeong Kim, president of Alcatel-Lucent Bell Labs, said in a press release. He added the UNIX system and the C programming language have revolutionized computing and communications, making open systems possible.
The Japan Prize was established in 1985 to honor achievements in science and technology.