Ken Thompson: Wikis


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Kenneth Lane Thompson

Thompson (left) with Dennis Ritchie.
Born February 4, 1943 (1943-02-04) (age 67)
New Orleans, Louisiana, USA
Fields Computer Science
Institutions Bell Labs
Entrisphere, Inc
Google Inc.
Known for Unix
B (programming language)
Belle (chess machine)
Notable awards Turing Award
National Medal of Technology
Tsutomu Kanai Award

Ken Thompson (born February 4, 1943), commonly referred to as ken in hacker circles,[1] is an American pioneer of computer science notable for his work with the B programming language and his shepherding of the Unix and Plan 9 operating systems. Most recently Thompson is also the co-creator of Google's programming language Go.



Thompson was born Kenneth Lane Thompson in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. He received a Bachelor of Science in 1965 and a master's degree in 1966, both in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, from the University of California, Berkeley, where his master's thesis advisor was Elwyn Berlekamp.[citation needed]

In the 1960s, Thompson and Dennis Ritchie worked on the Multics operating system. While writing Multics, Thompson created the Bon programming language. The two left the Multics project when Bell Labs withdrew from it, but they used the experience from the project, and in 1969, Thompson and Ritchie became the principal creators of the Unix operating system. At this time, Thompson decided that Unix needed a system programming language and created B, a precursor to Ritchie's C.[2]

Thompson had developed the CTSS version of the editor QED, which included regular expressions for searching text. QED and Thompson's later editor ed (The Standard Text Editor on Unix) contributed greatly to the eventual popularity of regular expressions, previously regarded mostly as a tool (or toy) for logicians.[citation needed] Regular expressions became pervasive in Unix text processing programs (such as grep) and in modern programming languages such as Perl; they are also a central concept in Rob Pike's sam text editor. Almost all programs that work with regular expressions today use some variant of Thompson's notation for them.

Thompson also developed UTF-8 (a widely used character encoding scheme) together with Rob Pike in 1992.[3]

Along with Joseph Condon, he created the hardware and software for Belle, a world champion chess computer. He also wrote programs for generating the complete enumeration of chess endings, known as endgame tablebases, for all 4, 5, and 6-piece endings, allowing chess-playing computer programs to make "perfect" moves once a position stored in them is reached. Later, with the help of chess endgame expert John Roycroft, Thompson distributed his first results on CD-ROM.

Thompson's style of programming has influenced others, notably in the terseness of his expressions and a preference for clear statements.[citation needed]

In late 2000, Thompson retired from Bell Labs. He worked at Entrisphere, Inc as a fellow until 2006 and now works at Google as a Distinguished Engineer.


Thompson (left) and Ritchie (center) receiving the National Medal of Technology from President Clinton.

Turing Award

In 1983, Thompson and Ritchie jointly received the Turing Award for their development of generic operating systems theory and specifically for the implementation of the UNIX operating system. His acceptance speech, "Reflections on Trusting Trust"[4] presented the backdoor attack now known as the Thompson hack or trusting trust attack, and is widely considered a seminal computer security work in its own right.

National Medal of Technology

On April 27, 1999, Thompson and Ritchie jointly received the 1998 National Medal of Technology from President Bill Clinton for co-inventing the UNIX operating system and the C programming language which together have led to enormous advances in computer hardware, software, and networking systems and stimulated growth of an entire industry, thereby enhancing American leadership in the Information Age.[5][6]

Tsutomu Kanai Award

In 1999, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers chose Thompson to receive the first Tsutomu Kanai Award for his role in creating the UNIX operating system, which for decades has been a key platform for distributed systems work.[7]


External links

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From Wikiquote

Ken Thompson (left) with Dennis Ritchie (right)

Kenneth Lane Thompson (born 4 February 1943) is a computer scientist and winner, with Dennis Ritchie, of the 1983 Turing Award. He is notable for his work on the Unix operating system.



  • You can't trust code that you did not totally create yourself. (Especially code from companies that employ people like me.) No amount of source-level verification or scrutiny will protect you from using untrusted code.
  • The press, television, and movies make heroes of vandals by calling them whiz kids. [...] There is obviously a cultural gap. The act of breaking into a computer system has to have the same social stigma as breaking into a neighbor's house. It should not matter that the neighbor's door is unlocked.
  • I view Linux as something that's not Microsoft—a backlash against Microsoft, no more and no less. I don't think it will be very successful in the long run. I've looked at the source and there are pieces that are good and pieces that are not. A whole bunch of random people have contributed to this source, and the quality varies drastically. My experience and some of my friends' experience is that Linux is quite unreliable. Microsoft is really unreliable but Linux is worse.
    • "Unix and Beyond: An Interview with Ken Thompson", Computer 32 (5), May 1999, pp. 68-54[3]
  • Anything new will have to come along with the type of revolution that came along with Unix. Nothing was going to topple IBM until something came along that made them irrelevant. I'm sure they have the mainframe market locked up, but that's just irrelevant. And the same thing with Microsoft: Until something comes along that makes them irrelevant, the entry fee is too difficult and they won't be displaced.
    • "Unix and Beyond: An Interview with Ken Thompson", Computer 32 (5), May 1999, pp. 68-54[4]


  • "I've seen [visual] editors like that, but I don't feel a need for them. I don't want to see the state of the file when I'm editing."
    • Thompson on the superiority of ed to editors such as today's vi or emacs, as summarized by Peter Salus in A Quarter Century of UNIX (Addison-Wesley, 1994).[5]


  • We have persistent objects, they're called files.
  • One of my most productive days was throwing away 1000 lines of code.
  • If you want to go somewhere, goto is the best way to get there.
  • When in doubt, use brute force.
    • Attributed by a fortune cookie file.
  • The X server has to be the biggest program I've ever seen that doesn't do anything for you.
    • Attributed without source since 1994. [6]

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