Dennis M. Ritchie: C History
Dennis M. Ritchie
Bell Labs/Lucent Technologies
This paper is about the development of the C programming language, the influences on it, and the conditions under which it was created. For the sake of brevity, I omit full descriptions of C itself, its parent B [Johnson 73] and its grandparent BCPL [Richards 79], and instead concentrate on characteristic elements of each language and how they evolved.C came into being in the years 1969-1973, in parallel with the early development of the Unix operating system; the most creative period occurred during 1972. Another spate of changes peaked between 1977 and 1979, when portability of the Unix system was being demonstrated. In the middle of this second period, the first widely available description of the language appeared: The C Programming Language, often called the `white book’ or `K&R;’ [Kernighan 78]. Finally, in the middle 1980s, the language was officially standardized by the ANSI X3J11 committee, which made further changes. Until the early 1980s, although compilers existed for a variety of machine architectures and operating systems, the language was almost exclusively associated with Unix;
Thus Steve Johnson began to work on pcc, a C compiler intended to be easy to retarget to new machines [Johnson 78b], while he, Thompson, and I began to move the Unix system itself to the Interdata 8/32 computer.
During the 1980s the use of the C language spread widely, and compilers became available on nearly every machine architecture and operating system; in particular it became popular as a programming tool for personal computers, both for manufacturers of commercial software for these machines, and for end-users interested in programming. At the start of the decade, nearly every compiler was based on Johnson’s pcc; by 1985 there were many independently-produced compiler products.
As should be clear from the history above, C evolved from typeless languages.
It is worth summarizing compactly the roles of the direct contributors to today’s C language. Ken Thompson created the B language in 1969-70; it was derived directly from Martin Richards’s BCPL. Dennis Ritchie turned B into C during 1971-73, keeping most of B’s syntax while adding types and many other changes, and writing the first compiler. Ritchie, Alan Snyder, Steven C. Johnson, Michael Lesk, and Thompson contributed language ideas during 1972-1977, and Johnson’s portable compiler remains widely used. During this period, the collection of library routines grew considerably, thanks to these people and many others at Bell Laboratories. In 1978, Brian Kernighan and Ritchie wrote the book that became the language definition for several years. Beginning in 1983, the ANSI X3J11 committee standardized the language. Especially notable in keeping its efforts on track were its officers Jim Brodie, Tom Plum, and P. J. Plauger, and the successive draft redactors, Larry Rosler and Dave Prosser.