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C Programming Language History

Dennis Ritchie, Developer / Inventor of C Programing Language, Unix
- Dennis Ritchie

What is or is not implemented in the kernel represents both a great responsibility and a great power. It is a soap-box platform on 'the way things should be done.' Even so, if 'the way' is too radical, no one will follow it. Every important decision was weighed carefully. Throughout, simplicity has been substituted for efficiency. Complex algorithms are used only if their complexity can be localized.

- Ken Thompson; UNIX Implementation; The Bell System Technical Journal; July - August 1978.

The development of Unix in the C language made it uniquely portable and improvable.

The first version of Unix was written in the low-level PDP-7 assembler language. Soon after, a language called TMG was created for the PDP-7 by R. M. McClure. Using TMG to develop a FORTRAN compiler, Ken Thompson instead ended up developing a compiler for a new high-level language he called B, based on the earlier BCPL language developed by Martin Richard. Where it might take several pages of detailed PDP-7 assembly code to accomplish a given task, the same functionality could typically be expressed in a higher level language like B in just a few lines. B was thereafter used for further development of the Unix system, which made the work much faster and more convenient.

When the PDP-11 computer arrived at Bell Labs, Dennis Ritchie built on B to create a new language called C which inherited Thompson's taste for concise syntax, and had a powerful mix of high-level functionality and the detailed features required to program an operating system. Most of the components of Unix were eventually rewritten in C, culminating with the kernel itself in 1973. Because of its convenience and power, C went on to become the most popular programming language in the world over the next quarter century.

This development of Unix in C had two important consequences:

  • Portability. It made it much easier to port Unix to newly developed computers, because it eliminated the need to translate the entire operating system to the new assemble language by hand:

    • First, write a C-to-assembly language compiler for the new machine.

    • Then use the new compiler to automatically translate the Unix C language source code into the new machine's assembly language.

    • Finally, write only a small amount of new code where absolutely required by hardware differences with the new machine.
  • Improvability. It made Unix easy to customize and improve by any programmer that could learn the high-level C programming language. Many did learn C, and went on to experiment with modifications to the operating system, producing many useful new extensions and enhancements.
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