In computing, C (/ˈsiː/, like the letter C) is a general-purpose programming language initially developed by Dennis Ritchie between 1969 and 1973 at Bell Labs. Its design provides constructs that map efficiently to typical machine instructions, and therefore it found lasting use in applications that had formerly been coded in assembly language, most notably system software like the Unixcomputer operating system.
C is one of the most widely used programming languages of all time, and there are very few computer architectures for which a C compiler does not exist.
Before there was an official standard for C, many users and implementors relied on an informal specification contained in a book by Ritchie and Brian Kernighan; that version is generally referred to as “K&R” C. In 1989 the American National Standards Institute published a standard for C (generally called “ANSI C” or “C89″). The next year, the same specification was approved by the International Organization for Standardization as an international standard (generally called “C90″). ISO later released an extension to the internationalization support of the standard in 1995, and a revised standard (known as “C99″) in 1999. The current version of the standard (now known as “C11″) was approved in December of 2011.
Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie
The initial development of C occurred at AT&T Bell Labs between 1969 and 1973; according to Ritchie, the most creative period occurred in 1972. It was named “C” because its features were derived from an earlier language called “B”, which according to Ken Thompson was a stripped-down version of the BCPL programming language.
The origin of C is closely tied to the development of the Unix operating system, originally implemented in assembly language on aPDP-7 by Ritchie and Thompson, incorporating several ideas from colleagues. Eventually they decided to port the operating system to a PDP-11. B’s inability to take advantage of some of the PDP-11′s features, notably byte addressability, led to the development of an early version of C.
The original PDP-11 version of the Unix system was developed in assembly language. By 1973, with the addition of
struct types, the C language had become powerful enough that most of the Unix kernel was rewritten in C. This was one of the first operating system kernels implemented in a language other than assembly. (Earlier instances include the Multics system (written in PL/I), and MCP (Master Control Program) for the Burroughs B5000 written in ALGOL in 1961.)
C was developed at Bell Laboratories in 1972 by Dennis Ritchie. Many of its principles and ideas were taken from the earlier language B and B’s earlier ancestors BCPL and CPL. CPL ( Combined Programming Language ) was developed with the purpose of creating a language that was capable of both high level, machine independent programming and would still allow the programmer to control the behavior of individual bits of information. The one major drawback of CPL was t
hat it was too large for use in many applications. In 1967, BCPL ( Basic CPL ) was created as a scaled down version of CPL while still retaining its basic features. In 1970, Ken Thompson, while working at Bell Labs, took this process further by developing the B language. B was a scaled down version of BCPL written specifically for use in systems programming. Finally in 1972, a co-worker of Ken Thompson, Dennis Ritchie, returned some of the generality found in BCPL to the B language in the process of developing the language we now know as C.
C’s power and flexibility soon became apparent. Because of this, the Unix operating system which was originally written in assembly language, was almost immediately re-written in C ( only the assembly language code needed to “bootstrap” the C code was kept ). During the rest of the 1970′s, C spread throughout many colleges and universities because of it’s close ties to Unix and the availability of C compilers. Soon, many different organizations began using their own versions of C causing compatibility problems. In response to this in 1983, the American National Standards Institute ( ANSI ) formed a committee to establish a standard definition of C which became known as ANSI Standard C. Today C is in widespread use with a rich standard library of functions.
The C language shook the computer world. Its impact should not be underestimated, because it fundamentally changed the way programming was approached and thought about. The creation of C was a direct result of the need for a structured, efficient, highlevel language that could replace assembly code when creating systems programs. As you probably know, when a computer language is designed, trade-offs are often made, such as the following:
• Ease-of-use versus power
• Safety versus efficiency
• Rigidity versus extensibility
Prior to C, programmers usually had to choose between languages that optimized one set of traits or the other. For example, although FORTRAN could be used to write fairly efficient programs for scientific applications, it was not very good for systems code. And while BASIC was easy to learn, it wasn’t very powerful, and its lack of structure made its usefulness questionable for large programs. Assembly language can be used to produce highly efficient programs, but it is not easy to learn or use effectively. Further, debugging assembly code can be quite difficult.
Another compounding problem was that early computer languages such as BASIC, COBOL, and FORTRAN were not designed around structured principles. Instead, they relied upon the GOTO as a primary means of program control. As a result, programs written using these languages tended to produce “spaghetti code”—a mass of tangled jumps and conditional branches that make a program virtually impossible to understand. While languages like Pascal are structured, they were not designed for efficiency, and failed to include certain features necessary to make them applicable to a wide range of programs. (Specifically, given the standard dialects of Pascal available at the time, it was not practical to consider using Pascal for systems-level code.)
So, just prior to the invention of C, no one language had reconciled the conflicting attributes that had dogged earlier efforts. Yet the need for such a language was pressing. By the early 1970s, the computer revolution was beginning to take hold, and the demand for software was rapidly outpacing programmers’ ability to produce it. A great deal of effort was being expended in academic circles in an attempt to create a better computer language. But, and perhaps most importantly, a secondary force was beginning to be felt. Computer hardware was finally becoming common enough that a critical mass was being reached. No longer were computers kept behind locked doors. For the first time, programmers were gaining virtually unlimited access to their machines. This allowed the
freedom to experiment. It also allowed programmers to begin to create their own tools. On the eve of C’s creation, the stage was set for a quantum leap forward in computer languages.
Invented and first implemented by Dennis Ritchie on a DEC PDP-11 running the UNIX operating system, C was the result of a development process that started with an older language called BCPL, developed by Martin Richards. BCPL influenced a language called B, invented by Ken Thompson, which led to the development of C in the 1970s. For many years, the de facto standard for C was the one supplied with the UNIX operating system and described in The C Programming Language by Brian Kernighan and Dennis Ritchie (Prentice-Hall, 1978). C was formally standardized in December
1989, when the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard for C was adopted.
The creation of C is considered by many to have marked the beginning of the modern age of computer languages. It successfully synthesized the conflicting attributes that had so troubled earlier languages. The result was a powerful, efficient, structured language that was relatively easy to learn. It also included one other, nearly intangible aspect: it was a programmer’s language. Prior to the invention of C, computer languages were generally designed either as academic exercises or by bureaucratic committees. C is different. It was designed, implemented, and developed by real, working programmers, reflecting the way that they approached the job of programming. Its features were honed, tested, thought about, and rethought by the people who actually used the language. The
result was a language that programmers liked to use. Indeed, C quickly attracted many followers who had a near-religious zeal for it. As such, it found wide and rapid acceptance in the programmer community. In short, C is a language designed by and for programmers.