Dennis Ritchie and Steve Jobs -- quite the juxtaposition

Today, it was narrowly reported that C programming language inventor and Unix co-creator Dennis Ritchie died after a long illness. He was 70. Earlier this month, Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs also died after a long illness.

It's quite the juxtaposition.

After witnessing the media fervor and outpouring of praise on social networks by tens of millions for Jobs, and nothing close to that for Ritchie, one name came to my mind: Nikola Tesla.

In case you didn't know, Tesla perfected the alternating current system (AC) that allows you to flip a switch and get light in your house. He also created a motor that could be run on AC, and that became the basis for all the other motors that are in the appliances in your house. Oh yeah, he also filed the first radio patent, not Marconi.

Tesla's inventions have been kind of a big deal for the past century or so, but they're things you just don't think about. It's kind of like a programming language on which most computers were built and an operating system that is used on servers and workstations to power worldwide commerce and the Internet. They're things we just take for granted, but we shouldn't.

Tesla worked as an assistant to Thomas Edison. Edison died rich and famous. Tesla died poor and mostly unknown. Jobs died a famous multi-billionaire. I can't say for sure how wealthy Ritchie was, but it's an easy assumption that he wasn't as wealthy as Jobs and he didn't garner a smidgen of the notoriety.

Neither Jobs nor Edison were highly, formally educated. Jobs dropped out of college after his first semester. Edison completed three years of primary education, not college.

Edison founded an industry based on electricity and Jobs arguably founded an industry based on the integrated circuit.

I did not know either Jobs or Ritchie. I never met either. I am just as guilty of knowing more about Steve Jobs than Dennis Ritchie; I'd only heard of Ritchie, I know Jobs' life story.

From all the reports I've read, Ritchie was a humble man. He was the winner of this nation's highest award for technology, the National Medal of Technology. He also received the Association for Computing Machinery's highly coveted Turing Award.

I think it is odd what passes for greatness these days -- wealth and fame. Perhaps they always have, but they shouldn't.

Recently, I read a pointed opinion piece by Neeraj Thakur titled: "Steve Jobs wasn't great, he wasn't even close." In it, Thakur builds the case that Jobs' contributions to the world cannot begin to compare to someone like Jonas Salk, the inventor of the polio vaccine. He points out that Jobs shut down Apple's philanthropic activity in 1997 and never restarted it, even after his company stored up tens of billions of dollars in cash reserves.

Salk could have patented his invention and become immeasurably rich, but chose not to, stating: "Can anyone patent the sun?"

Conversely, I was incensed over a recent Forbes article praising Jobs for being a jerk because by treating people badly he was able to achieve what he did.

I would never attempt to take away anything from either Edison or Jobs. Both men were technological and business visionaries -- arguably geniuses -- who advanced the world of technology through their dogged perseverance and single-mindedness. But do they deserve the praises heaped on them or did they stand on the backs of greater inventors?

Oh, by the way, Apple's operating system is based on Unix.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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