Ken Thompson

Ken Thompson

1997 Fellow

For his co-creation, with Dennis Ritchie, of the UNIX operating system, and for development of the C programming language.

Biography

Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie (standing) at Bell Labs, 1972
Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie (standing) at Bell Labs, 1972

Ken Thompson was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1943. He received a B.S. (1965) and M.S. (1966) in electrical engineering and computer science from UC Berkeley.

In 1969, Thompson and colleague Dennis Ritchie created the UNIX operating system at Bell Telephone Laboratories. UNIX was a scaled-down version of the MIT MULTICS operating system, one meant to run on the new smaller minicomputers becoming available at the end of the 1960s. When re-written in the C programming language by Dennis Ritchie, UNIX became a truly portable operating system capable of running on many different hardware platforms. The C language itself was widely adopted and is in wide use today.

UNIX, which has had numerous incarnations since its inception, has become the backbone of the computerized technical infrastructure of the modern world. UNIX or its variants run on devices as different as supercomputers and smartphones and as enormous as global banking networks and military systems.

The longevity, reliability, and security of UNIX reflect the excellence of its design as it has been adapted to modern use. Thompson won the ACM Turing Award (1983), the U.S. National Medal of Technology (1999), and the Japan Prize (2011), all with Dennis Ritchie.