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Ken Thompson: Co-creator of Unix

Ken Thompson: Co-creator of Unix

 By Charles Joseph | Cybersecurity Researcher
 Published on July 30th, 2023
This post was updated on November 25th, 2023

Ken Thompson is a renowned American pioneer in the world of computer science. He was born on February 4, 1943, and is best known for his significant contributions to computer programming and operating systems. Thompson co-developed UNIX in the late 1960s while working at Bell Labs. This operating system has influenced many others, most notably Linux. Thompson also helped design and implement the original Unix’s language, B.

Additionally, Ken Thompson invented the B programming language, the direct precursor to the C programming language. He also co-created the Go programming language while working at Google.

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Throughout his career, Thompson has received several prestigious awards, including the Turing Award in 1983, the Hamming Medal in 1990, and the Japan Prize in 2011. His work has greatly influenced the development of modern computing, making him a key figure in the field.

1. Ken Thompson’s Involvement in the Development of Unix Operating System

Ken Thompson significantly shaped the field of computer science while working on the Unix operating system at Bell Labs. Thompson, along with his colleague Dennis Ritchie, initially created this multi-tasking, multi-user operating system for a project at Bell Labs in 1969. Unix was revolutionary for its time because it allowed multiple users to perform different tasks simultaneously.

Thompson wrote the initial version of Unix in assembly language, making it hardware-dependent. Realizing the limitations this presented, Thompson and Ritchie rewrote Unix in the C programming language. This made Unix portable, allowing it to operate on various hardware platforms. The Unix operating system, with its modularity and clean design, has since set a precedent for many other operating systems that came afterward, including Linux and MacOS.

Thompson also developed several essential Unix tools, such as pipes, which enabled the output of one program to be used as the input of another. This innovative design has influenced software design and has become nearly universal in modern operating systems. Overall, Thompson’s work on Unix has had a significant and lasting impact on the computer industry.

2. Thompson’s Role in Computer Programming Languages

Ken Thompson made substantial contributions to the development of several influential programming languages. The B programming language is particularly noteworthy among these. Thompson invented this language while working at Bell Labs as a simplified version of BCPL. Though not widely used, B was significant because it served as the direct precursor to the C programming language, which took the tech world by storm and continues to be an important language in the programming field.

Dennis Ritchie expanded B to create the C language. Thompson played a major role in the development of this language as well. Having been significantly involved in the creation of Unix, he and Ritchie rewrote Unix’s source code in C to make it hardware-independent. To this day, the C programming language remains a popular and widely-used language for system programming, largely thanks to the groundwork laid by Thompson and Ritchie.

Decades later, Thompson made another significant contribution to programming languages when he co-created the Go programming language at Google. Introduced in 2009, Go or Golang, was designed to resolve common criticisms of other languages while maintaining their positive characteristics. It’s known for its efficiency and concurrency, illustrating Thompson’s continuous impact on programming language development.

3. Awards and Recognitions of Ken Thompson

Ken Thompson’s contributions to computer science have garnered him numerous awards and recognitions. In 1983, he jointly received the Turing Award with Dennis Ritchie for their development of generic operating systems theory and specifically for the implementation of the UNIX operating system. The Turing Award, often referred to as the “Nobel Prize of Computing,” is one of the highest distinctions in computer science, underscoring Thompson’s significant contributions to the field.

Thompson’s contributions were further recognized in 1990 when he received the Richard W. Hamming Medal from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). This award was given for his work on UNIX and was a testament to his influence on computer operating systems.

In 2011, Thompson, along with Ritchie once again, received the Japan Prize for Information and Communications. This international award honors contributions in science and technology that promote peace and prosperity. Overall, Thompson’s award wins underscore the global impact and enduring significance of his work in computer science.


Ken Thompson’s contributions to computer science, be it through the creation of Unix or the development of pioneering programming languages like B and Go, have been monumental. His enduring impact is evident in the awards and recognitions he’s received, and the influence he’s had on numerous operating systems and computer technologies used today.

Key Takeaways

  • Ken Thompson is a key figure in computer science, known for his work on the Unix operating system and the development of influential programming languages.
  • Thompson co-created the multi-tasking, multi-user Unix operating system at Bell Labs, hugely influencing modern computing.
  • Thompson invented the B programming language, contributed significantly to the C language and co-created the Go language at Google, shaping programming as we know it today.
  • Throughout his illustrious career, Thompson has bagged several prestigious awards like the Turing Award, Hamming Medal, and the Japan Prize.
  • The tools Thompson developed like Unix and its programs have had widespread applications and continue to impact various practices in the tech industry.

Related Questions

1. What were the limitations of assembly language which led Ken Thompson to rewrite Unix in C?

Assembly language is hardware-dependent, which means a program written in assembly language can only run on specific types of hardware. To make Unix hardware-independent and portable across different platforms, Thompson and Ritchie rewrote Unix in the C programming language.

2. How has Unix influenced modern operating systems?

Unix’s design principles, like its modularity and clean design, have become guiding philosophies for many modern operating systems. Operating systems like Linux and MacOS are direct derivatives of Unix. Its innovations, such as the concept of pipes, are also widely implemented in modern software design.

3. What particular criticisms of other languages was Go designed to resolve?

The Go programming language was designed to address common criticisms of other languages, including slow compilation, complexity, and poor handling of dependencies. It’s known for efficiently managing system resources and offering excellent support for multithreading, making it ideal for systems programming and scalable web applications.

4. How was the B language instrumental in the development of the C programming language?

The B language, invented by Thompson, served as the direct precursor to the C language. Dennis Ritchie expanded B to create C. Thompson’s creation of B essentially laid the groundwork for the development of C, which is now one of the most widely-used programming languages in the world.

5. Why are Ken Thompson’s contributions to computer science significant?

Ken Thompson’s contributions are significant because they have had a lasting and widespread impact on computer science. His work with the Unix operating system and programming languages like B and Go have influenced numerous other operating systems, programming languages, and tools. He has also set standards in the field, with his achievements recognized by many prestigious awards.

"Amateurs hack systems, professionals hack people."
-- Bruce Schneier, a renown computer security professional
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