C Language – The code of God


One could easily say “In the beginning there was C language. All else were variants” and not be far from the truth.  As I headed to work today I was ruminating on the impact C language has had to the computing landscape for the past 4 decades. No other language has had such a significant impact.

C Language was created by Dennis Ritchie & Brian Kernighan in Bell Labs, around 1972. C was the trigger for many seismic shifts in the computing industry. The language is terse and compact. C language strikes a rich balance between brevity and readability.

C language, in my opinion, is the code of God.

We can easily divide the epoch of programming languages as before C and after C. Before C, there was a babel of languages from FORTRAN, COBOL, Pascal, Basic, Prolog, Ada, Lisp and numerous others. When C language, entered the scene, many other languages simply faded away. C set the tone for programming and spawned an entire industry.

Many of the popular constructs like the if-then-else, for, while loops had a crisp simplicity in C. C included in its repertoire the ability to manipulate the bits of registers  all the way to creating complex and rich data structures with the help of structures and pointers. In fact C was probably one of key enablers for the development of the legendary Operating System (OS), UNIX from Bell Labs.

Building the innards of an OS is an undertaking of gigantic proportions and requires the need to be able to manipulate the registers of the numerous input/output devices, the processors and the memory.  C was eminently suited for this the job. Also the complex algorithms of OS for e.g. process scheduling, memory management, IO management, disk management could now be programed simultaneously in a bottom-up fashion by working at the ‘bit’ level and in a top-down fashion allowing for complex data structures and algorithms required for scheduling, memory and IO management. . With a powerful language C, the birth of UNIX was a given.  When AT&T distributed UNIX to the universities in the late 1970 it created serious shock waves in the industry. Since then UNIX has resulted in numerous variants – Solaris, HP-UX, AIX, iOS, Linux and then Android and so on. Well, that’s another story!

C came at an opportune time when the internet was at its infancy. C proceeded to be useful also for protocol of the internet namely TCP/IP. C spawned an army of programmers all keen to take on this new language twiddling bits, bytes and complex data structures of the OS and protocols.

C, UNIX and TCP/IP almost entirely power the internet and the WorldWideWeb.

The beauty and brevity of the language enabled programmers to easily express complex problems as units of C functions. Pointers, and bit manipulation gave it a power that was unparalleled at that time. Soon C became the de facto programming standard. C, in fact, became a way of thinking for problems!

So it was not surprising that languages that came after C used the same or similar constructs. C++ maintained identical constructs of C to maintain backward compatibility as well as to allow the already existing millions of C programmers easily assimilate the OO paradigm. Java, from Sun Micro Systems, followed suit.  Java, a very powerful and popular language, also retained the flavor of C.

Many interpreted and dynamic languages like Perl, Python, and Ruby all have C look-alike constructs,

Even in the languages of the Word Wide Web, C familiarity is extremely useful. JavaScript, PHP look familiar to one who is proficient in C.

The only other language which is entirely different from C from the bottom up, in my opinion is Lisp. Lisp is older than C and requires an entirely different way of thinking. There are possibly others too.

C balances economy of syntax, style and structure in programming exquisitely. It does have a few shortcomings, as its detractors would like to say. For e.g. C in the hands of a novice can spell disaster. It has also been accused of allowing programmers to create impregnable code. But in the hands of an experienced programmer it is possible to create really, robust code. UNIX and its variants are considered to be more resilient than OS’es to hackers.

C is really the soul of programming!

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