School of Information Science - Hall of Fame

Kenneth Thompson
  • Kenneth Thompson
  • Born: February 4, 1943
  • Field: Computer science; programming languages; operating systems
  • Focus: Created, with Dennis Ritchie, the UNIX operating system and contributed heavily to its subsequent evolution. Created the B programming language, the predecessor to C.
  • Country: United States
  • Era: 1970 to 1989

Ken Thompson, along with Dennis Ritchie, was the creator of the UNIX operating system. Thompson had written the B programming language, from which Ritchie derived the C programming language. Thompson, again with Ritchie, eventually rewrote UNIX in the C language in 1973, and the two technologies have been inextricably entwined ever since.

Thompson initially developed UNIX while working at Bell Laboratories. The name UNIX is a derivative of Multics, a mainframe-based operating system developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Bell Labs made the source code for UNIX available to government agencies and universities, after which the evolution of the operating system took multiple courses, primarily in the form of AT&T System UNIX and the Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) UNIX. Thompson was involved in the evolution and enhancement of both both branches, the latter of which was eventually developed as the Sun Operating System (SunOS) by Bill Joy after he left Berkeley.

In 1983, Thompson and Ritchie received the A.M. Turing Award from the Association for Computing Machinery "for their development of generic operating systems theory and specifically for the implementation of the UNIX operating system." In 1998, both were awarded the U.S. National Medal of Technology by President Clinton, and both received the Pioneer Award of the IEEE Computer Society in 1994. Thompson retired from Bell Labs in 2000 and is currently a fellow at Entrisphere, Incorporated. He is also a fellow at Bell Labs and a member of the National Academies of Engineering and Sciences.

Thompson earned B.S. and M.S. degrees in electrical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley in 1965 and 1966. He is the author of more than a dozen papers on topics related to operating systems.

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