It only took 40-some years, but Unix pioneers Ken Thompson (a Berkeley alum) and Dennis Ritchie have waited — and continued to breathe — long enough to receive a major international honor for their creation.  They were announced in January as 2011 recipients of the Japan Prize.

Japan prize logoThey began working on Unix in 1969 at Bell Labs, where they were both computer scientists, for reasons that were not necessarily altruistic.  Thompson, now 67, says, “I did it as a backlash against the bad operating systems of the day.  We were just trying to get something better to get our own work done.”  (According to the 2009 book Coders at Work, “he fully expected to be fired” for doing it.)

Well, it was a better system, so superior that it eventually became the underlying language of the personal computer and a basic component across the landscape, from supercomputers to the internet.

Thompson and Ritchie will split a cash award of 50 million yen — about $600,000 — for their long-ago creation of the Unix operating system, and enjoy a bit more worldwide renown.  (The prize ceremony is April 20 in Tokyo.)  They’ve each been honored separately for a variety of accomplishments, and together, notably, with the Turing Award in 1983 and the National Medal of Technology (from President Bill Clinton) in 1999.

Thompson did both his undergrad and graduate work at Berkeley, receiving his B.S. in 1964 and his master’s the following year, both in electrical engineering and computer sciences.  Among many other things, Thompson invented the programming language B, precursor to Dennis Ritchie’s C.  He’s also known for helping build Belle, the first special-purpose chess computer and the strongest non-human player of its time.  After Bell Labs, Thompson worked for the software company Entrisphere until 2006, when he joined Google as a distinguished engineer — and co-created their programming language Go.

Larger image: Ken Thompson at a conference in Berkeley, 2004 (photo: Peg Skorpinski). Inset: Thompson and Dennis Ritchie, back when they, and Unix, were about four decades younger.

More about Ken Thompson and a sampling of Berkeley’s other computing pioneers