MURRAY HILL, N.J. -- Two luminaries in the world of computing sciences, Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson, of Lucent Technologies' Bell Labs, have been awarded the U.S. National Medal of Technology.
President Bill Clinton announced the award today. He will present it in a ceremony at the White House early next year.
The award, administered by the Commerce Department's Office of Technology Policy, is the country's highest for achievement in technology. It honors breakthrough concepts and inventions. Thompson and Ritchie were cited for their invention of the Unix operating system and the C programming language.
Both also helped develop the Plan 9 and Inferno operating systems, invented at Bell Labs and introduced in 1995 and 1996, respectively. Most recently, they have contributed to the development of Lucent's PathStar Access Server, which provides packet voice and data services.
The Medal citation describes their inventions as having "led to enormous advances in computer hardware, software, and networking systems and stimulated growth of an entire industry, thereby enhancing American leadership in the Information Age."
"With UNIX and C, Ken and Dennis changed the way people used, thought and learned about computers and computer science," said Arun Netravali, executive vice president of research at Lucent's Bell Labs. "Few people have had such impact on their colleagues, on generations of students and on an entire industry."
Much of the progress of computer hardware, software, and networks during the past quarter century can be traced to Ritchie and Thompson's creation of Unix and C language.
Without operating systems, computer hardware is useless; before Unix, operating systems were large, vendor-specific, and designed to cope with particular features of a given machine. Unix was the first commercially important portable operating system, usable almost without change across the span of hardware from the smallest laptops to supercomputers. It embodies visionary ideas -- deliberate generality and openness -- that continue to be a strong force today. Many of its approaches and notations influence the entire span of operating systems.
The successes of Unix are intertwined with C, the first general-purpose programming language to combine the efficiency of assembly language with high-level abstract expressiveness. Like Unix, C programs can move essentially without change from machine to machine, eliminating the need for expensive, error-prone software rewrites. Unix is the operating system of most large Internet servers, businesses and universities, and a major part of academic and industrial research in operating systems is based on Unix. Most commercial software is written in C or C++, a direct descendant of C that was also developed at Bell Labs, or more recently Java, a C++ descendant developed at Sun Microsystems.
Ritchie and Thompson joined Bell Labs within a year of each other, Thompson in 1966 and Ritchie in 1967. They worked closely together for several years on the design and development of Unix. The C Language, in which the Unix operating system is written, was invented by Ritchie. It grew out of an earlier language, B, written by Thompson.
Ritchie and Thompson had also worked on the Multics operating system project, a collaboration of MIT, Bell Labs and GE, which pioneered many of the ideas incorporated in Unix. Unix ultimately eclipsed Multics, in part because of its portability and adaptability to readily available computers.
Both Ritchie and Thompson are Bell Labs Fellows, an honor bestowed for sustained and exceptional contributions to research. Each has received numerous external awards, and they have jointly received the ACM Turing Award, the IEEE Emmanuel Piore Award and the Richard W. Hamming Medal.
Thompson is a Distinguished Member of Technical Staff in the Systems Software Research Department. His research topics have included operating systems, programming languages, and computer games. With J.H. Condon, he developed a chess-playing computer, "Belle," that won the U.S. and World Computing Chess Championships.
He was a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1975-76, and at the University of Sydney in Australia in 1988. Thompson earned B.S and M.S. degrees in electrical engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.
Ritchie heads the Systems Software Research Department. He has worked on the design of computer languages and operating systems. He holds a B.S. in physics from Harvard University, where he also earned an M.S. and completed a Ph.D. thesis in applied mathematics. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering.
Five other scientists have received the National Medal of Technology for work done at Bell Labs: John Mayo in 1990, W. Lincoln Hawkins in 1992, Amos Joel in 1993, and Richard Frenkiel and Joel Engel in 1994. Bell Labs, itself, was the first institution to receive the National Medal of Technology, in 1985. Eleven scientists have received the Nobel Prize in Physics for work done at Bell Labs, including Horst Stormer, Daniel Tsui and Robert Laughlin, winners of the 1998 prize. Also today, two Bell Labs scientists, Federico Capasso and Rudolph Kazarinov, received the Rank Prize, the world's most prestigious award in optoelectronics, in London
Bell Labs is the research and development arm of Lucent Technologies, which designs, builds and delivers a wide range of public and private networks, communications systems and software, consumer and business telephone systems and microelectronics components. Further information about Lucent Technologies is available on the worldwide web at http://www.lucent.com.
The above story is based on materials provided by Bell Labs - Lucent Technologies. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.
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