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The Long-Lost Computation Dissertation of Unix Pioneer Dennis Ritchie

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Dennis Ritchie, standing next to a seated Ken Thompson, in this 1973 photo.

Silicon Valley's Computer History Museum has found a copy of Dennis Ritchies 1968 final dissertation, Program Structure and Computational Complexity.

Credit: Peter Hamer

Dennis Ritchie (standing with Ken Thompson in the 1973 photo above) is a revered figure in the history of computing. But before he became a legend for his contributions to the world of operating systems and programming languages, Ritchie was a humble graduate student in applied mathematics at Harvard University, spending his share of time playing videogames and arguing with the university library about the cost of binding an academic paper.

Recently the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley caught a glimpse of this forgotten moment in time, rediscovering a copy of Ritchie's final dissertation which had been presumed lost for over half a century. Written in 1968, when he was just 27 years old, the paper is a chance to peek at the earliest days of computer science, to understand the challenges faced by pioneers who came before us, and appreciate an intellect that left behind a legacy we're still building on today. But maybe it's also a reminder of just how far we've come — and how much technology itself can change over the course of a single lifetime.

The news came in an announcement on the blog of Silicon Valley's Computer History Museum by technology historian David C. Brock, the director of the museum's Software History Center. Though they emphasize source code, the group "seeks to put history to work today in gauging where we are, where we have been, and where we are heading."


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