Ken Thompson (1943)


Thompson most notably co-invented with Dennis Ritchie the UNIX operating system at Bell Labs and invented the B programming language (“B” stands for Bell and the preceded C). Thompson later joined Google where he co-invented the GO programming language.

Among his other contributions were ed (a line oriented text editor), regular expressions and UTF-8.

Fascinated with the moon-landing, Thompson invented a computer game called Space Travel which enabled a pilot to fly a vehicle around a simulation of the solar system, observe the scenery and land on the various planets and their moons. Thompson originally wrote Space Travel for use on MULTICS, but he soon began work on rewriting it for use on a little-used and already-obsolete PDP-7 computer that was at Bell Labs. Space Travel was one of the first application programs to run on UNIX.

In 1969, Bell Labs withdrew from the MULTICS project and Thompson decided to write his own operating system, mainly because he wanted a decent system on which to run his game on. In little over a month he write the kernel, the shell, an editor and an assembler using the PDP-7 assembly language.

In 1972, Thompson rewrote the UNIX kernel in C making it portable and so assuring the system’s future success.

Fun facts:

  • the evolution of UNIX and its flavors is illustrated here.
  • UNIX was meant to be a workbench for programmers enabling them to write applications for other platforms. Thompson once said: “I abhor a system designed for the ‘user’, if that word is a coded pejorative meaning ‘stupid and unsophisticated’.”

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