Unpacking an Enigma

Dennis Ritchie with nephew Sam Ritchie

In many ways the story of Dennis Ritchie’s doctoral thesis is a metaphor for his life story… groundbreaking on multiple levels, ever shrouded in mystery.

David Brock published an article on The Computer History Museum website in June 2020 that told the story of Dennis Ritchie’s Harvard doctoral thesis.  Dennis never submitted it.  Something happened, and then all mention of it just disappeared for 54 years until 2012, a year after Dennis died.  And, as Brock reports, the concepts Dennis described in his dissertation represented breakthrough thinking in computer theory and were historically important.  To put it mildly, is a shame his thesis never saw the light of day.

Now that the thesis has been found and is available by PDF, next pops up the question… what happened?  Brock settles on a story featuring a dispute over a library fee.  But this doesn’t seem quite satisfactory. 

This website is dedicated to learning more about Dennis Ritchie’s dissertation. 
There are two big currently open questions…

  • Dennis was due to graduate in February 1968, all signs were pointing to his successfully attaining his PhD at that time, he had a complete thesis draft with only a half dozen insignificant typos identified by him as still needing correction. And then he didn’t graduate, never got a PhD.  And then he took he took his typed thesis document and put it on the shelf, where it stayed until after his death.  What happened?
  • The DMR thesis pdf now available at the Computer History museum, showcases what is typographically one of the most sophisticated math dissertations of the 1960s, with its perfectly uniform placement of subscripts and superscripts and its abundance of Greek letters and math symbols, and the uniformity of the type from editing as he moved from round to round.  Did he hire the best professional typist in Cambridge to help create such a close-to-perfect document?  Or could he have somehow tapped into new technologies that would allow him to do things that other students couldn’t do?

The way we see it, is not necessary to find answers to these questions… rather, our goal is to learn as much as we can about the conditions at play in the 1960’s world of math doctoral students, capture human stories from people who were there and working at the time, and to share what we find by posting it onto this website and growing what is known about Dennis during these times.  Maybe the answers will become clear, maybe we’ll never know… but these were historic times and the DMR thesis is historic itself,  so capturing more of what we can learn about all this hopefully will prove worthy in itself. 

Amazing is that more than 50 years, with all the right people now examining closely, the story of the thesis remains an enigma.  These should not be hard questions, given that he is so famous that people should search for their own memories of him.  But… Dennis’s siblings don’t know what happened, he never talked about it to us.  None of his Bell Labs colleagues know.  Nobody knows. 

And now, separately but connectedly, we’re focusing on the question of how Dennis coaxed the typography of his dissertation, the type fonts and positioning of the mathematical notations and layers of sub-and-superscripts, to be as uniform and consistent as they were. Comparisons with 32 math doctoral dissertations from MIT during the 1960s show that the DMR thesis was superior to all of them from a typographic perspective.  Nobody knows how he did it, great opportunity to learn more.

So this website is dedicated to learning about Dennis Ritchie’s doctoral thesis and about the intellectual, social and cultural background environment during his graduate school and early Bell Labs years, 1964-1968, and to sharing information and evidence and opinions by posting our findings on this website. 

Dmrthesis.net is managed and run by the Ritchie family.
Thanks for joining us!