Dennis in Grad School

So what do we actually know about Dennis during his graduate school and early Bell Labs years, 1963-1968?

First to understand is that Dennis was Dennis, always inscrutable in an inscrutable way.  Our family describes that he had a kind of force field which would deflect and refocus attention somehow.  It is said that Steve Jobs could project a reality distortion field… Dennis’s force field was something like this, except inverted and opposite. 

Dennis’s Bell Labs colleagues had this experience with Dennis.  This January 1991 UNIXWORLD article does a great job to capture the dynamic. 

Dennis on Crutches, mid-1960s

Graduate school colleague Albert Meyer, who co-authored two papers with Dennis, had his own experience with dmr social distancing.  In a September 2018 interview with David Brock, Meyer recounted how difficult it was to establish a connection with him.

We do have some actual evidence of what was happening in Dennis’s life during his graduate school years.

First are his official graduate school records… lots of juicy stuff here!

Dennis’s grad school application, written in 1963, is a heartfelt essay that reveals his intellectual passions and also his foibles.  “I can, for instance, imagine myself working on switching systems for the telephone company, developing new languages for communication with computers, or working on the logical design of a new computer”, he concludes.

From his recommendation letters we learn that as an undergrad he spent two summers working in Bruce Chalmers’ Metallurgy Lab.  Patrick Fischer, who became his PhD advisor before departing for Cornell, praised Dennis but ranked him in “the top 25 % of students”

Several letters were placed in his file while Dennis was a student.  These were different times, this may have just been how people communicated in academia back in the day… but the tone of these letters does seem a little distressed.  It sort of seems that Dennis was marching to the beat of his own drummer, and maybe some professors weren’t too happy about it.  This interpretation matches up with Albert Meyer’s description that Dennis was spending a lot of his time at MIT. 

Dennis never talked about any graduate school difficulties with his siblings… but these letters to the file suggest that trouble may have been brewing in paradise. 

The last four documents in the official files are an exchange between H.P. Smith, Head of the Employment Department at Bell Telephone Laboratories and Harvard’s Office of the Registrar.  We’ll leave it to you to interpret the meaning of this. 

Simply remember please… the reason we are here is that Dennis never matriculated and the dmr doctoral thesis was lost for over 50 years until after his death.  These letters may not provide answers, but this is as close as we get to the scene of the crime. 

This period – his graduate school years 1963-1968 – was when Dennis was his most artistically creative.  He built Heathkit receivers to listen to the Beatles and WBAI radio, he read Playboy, he made original art that he gave as Christmas presents. 

During Christmas holiday 1964 the Ritchie kids imagined that our family had an alter-ego secret superhero life as the Legion of Super Diseases (LOSD).  Somehow we roped Dennis in to this, we got him to commit to creating an LOSD comic book origin story, which he labored over and finally delivered in July 1965.  

For Christmas 1968 brother Bill, then 13, asked Dennis for a piece of original art, he delivered with this Andy Warhol inspired American flag

Bill told this story at the Bell Labs “Lasting Legacy of Dennis Ritchie” event on September 7, 2012.

– By Bill Ritchie

– By John Ritchie