In more sad news for the computing community, it was revealed that Dennis Ritchie has died. As Steve Bogart notes, the tendency (of journalists?) to now try to compare the accomplishments of Steve Jobs with those of Ritchie is most unseemly. Is life a contest? Can they not each be great? Ritchie’s fingerprints are all over modern computing devices, alongside those of Jobs.
I never met Ritchie, but I knew of him. I particularly knew of his book The C Programming Language. He coauthored the book with Brian Kernighan, and the book was widely known as “K & R.”
I first learned the C programming language in high school. I can’t remember whether I learned it at the Tennessee Governor’s School for the Sciences and Engineering or at the Saturday Academy for Computing and Mathematics (SACAM) at Oak Ridge National Lab. Wherever I learned it, though, I learned it from a book by Harbison and Steele. That link takes you to the third edition, which is the one that I had.
At the time, I hadn’t heard of K & R, but a couple of years after I took the course, someone asked me what book I had used when I learned C. I said that I was unsure, but that it was a thin, white paperback. The person said, “With a big, blue C on the cover?,” and I said yes. They proceeded to tell me that my book was called “K & R” and that it was a classic. I didn’t have occasion to reference the book again for many years. When I revisited C as an undergraduate, I had other texts, and my thin, white book of C was left behind in my childhood bedroom.
Thus, for many years I proudly believed that I owned a copy of K & R, the classic book on programming in C. At some point, though, the thin, white book of C caught up with me and came to my faculty office, where, when preparing to teach a programming course in C++ last Spring, I realized that it was merely an imitator of the classic.
For what it’s worth, the Harbison and Steele book is now in its fifth edition, and its cover no longer bears any resemblance to K & R. Since it’s in the fifth edition, it must be useful to someone; I even use my copy for occasional reference, though I don’t write much C these days. I don’t really blame the authors for the confusion. I know that authors often have little or no say over their book covers. It’s even possible that the similarity was completely accidental, if the cover was designed by someone that was not knowledgeable about the field. However, both books were published by Prentice Hall, making it difficult to believe that no one even noticed the similarity.1 Still, I think it’s a funny story.
I can even imagine plausible stories about a textbook publisher trying to juice revenue by replacing K & R, of which the second and (presumably) final edition was released in 1988, in the catalog with the new third edition of the more-frequently-updated H & S, which was released in 1991. But that would be unseemly. ↩