Many people spend their lives endlessly searching for the perfect answer to “why?” It stops them early in their tracks and holds them back from reaching their true potential.
Then there are those who are confronted with the question “why?” and laugh directly in its face. They interest themselves solely with the “how?” For these people any “why?” will do as long as there is sufficient “how?” associated with it. Dennis Ritchie was one of those people. A fiercely gifted programmer, he relished in the “how?”
If you were to ask any common person in these modern times “Why Unix?” Well it would be obvious. Unix because of file systems, because of the internet, because of Windows, because of Mac OS X, because of Linux and software freedom. What about “Why C?” Well that would be obvious too. C because of C++, because of Java, because of Perl, because of Python, the list goes on.
But if you were to ask someone “Why Unix?” or “Why C?” in 1972 you’d have a hard time finding an answer, even from Dr. Ritchie himself. The only true answer you’d be able to find would be “For Space Travel” or maybe “For Fun” and little else.
People like Dennis Ritchie made it respectful for those who were more interested in the “how?” rather than the “why?” to follow their own path. A programmer could program for the sake of the craft and the art without feeling like she was wasting her time or potential. Sometimes you just want to make something and that should be okay. Programs became works of art rather than slaves to science or utility.
And because they were works of art it takes an artist to understand the elegance, the universality, and the eternality of his accomplishments. Unix will be here forever and as much as people would like to say otherwise, the file system will be here forever. I’m sorry to say it but those who don’t yet understand why the file system is the ultimate abstraction still have much to learn.
As time has progressed from then to now the works of Dennis Ritchie have taught us that the “why?” doesn’t always have to dictate the “how?” and sometimes the “how?” can dictate the “why?”