[TUHS] History of popularity of C

Clem Cole clemc at ccc.com
Fri May 22 05:02:31 AEST 2020

On Thu, May 21, 2020 at 11:28 AM Tyler Adams <coppero1237 at gmail.com> wrote:

> Does anybody have any good resources on the history of the popularity of
> C? I'm looking for data to resolve a claim that C is so prolific and
> influential because it's so easy to write a C compiler.
Hmmmm,  I don't know what's been written, but old Dr. Dobbs and Byte Mag
are where I would start from 1975-85 (which I have in my attic, but lack a
good index).

Let me give you my experience and recollections, although Larry may scream
that catalog of memories he is colored by what he likes to call the UNIX

Academics in the mid-late 70s all got UNIX with full sources to originally
the Ritchie C Compiler and later the Johnson compiler.  Plus had access to
yacc/lex and the first editions of the dragon book.

Before C (or B) shows up there already were 'system programming languages'
such as BCPL, BLISS, PL/360, and ESPOL (much leads full languages like
Fortran, Algol family, PL/1) which people were also trying to use for
systems work.

In '73, C had been retargeted for the PDP-10 by Alan Snyder @ MIT
https://github.com/PDP-10/Snyder-C-compiler, but I believe that was a
rewrite not a port of the Ritchie compiler.    I believe this was the first
retarget, at least outside of the MH.   Before that C has been retargeted
to the Honeywell, Interdata and I believe the S/360 -- Steve and Doug can
probably say more.

The 8-bit microprocessor arrives on the scene in 75 and the 16-bit ones 4
years later.  Many of us at different universities wrote assemblers and
linkers for the same, often in C under UNIX.    CMU had a SAIL based 6502
assembler in the CS Dept that was used to burn ROMs, but it ran on the
PDP-10. There must have been an 8080 assembler over there too, but I don't
remember it.  The 10s were more difficult to use in the EE building and
tough to use with the KIM-1s.   I wrote one for the 6502, 8085, and the Z80
for the EE department on our 11/34 UNIX V6 system.  Ted Kowalski wrote the
predecessor to the eventual UNIX cu(1) program, which we called connect(1)
that allowed us to download code to the KIM's (and other micros) from the
UNIX systems that we had in the EE lab (which he took back to USG, was
rewritten and went into both PWB and eventually TS and V7).

The Purdue 8-bit micro suite would eventually become popular because it
supported full relocation and linker, which microprocessor support tools
like the one I wrote did not.  There was group at Purdue in EE that started
to retarget the Ritchie C Compiler, but I've lost track what happen.  Mike
Zuhl or Ward Cummingham might remember what became of that (more in a
minute) - I'm pretty sure Ward was mixed up in the that -- check his web
site you might find stuff there, or we can ask either of them (Steinhart
might know some of it too, as we all working with the original
Microprocessor team in Tek Walker Road in the late 1970s).

The first microprocessor targeted C compiler I personally used was the one
from Teletype Corporation which had retargeted the Ritchie C Compiler to
the Z80 in 1977/78 IIRC (that Phil Karn brought to CMU).   He and I hacked
it to use my assembler and got it to spit out 8085 code for our semester
project for Steely Dan's Real-Time course.   This was the original C
compiler he used for the KA9Q TCP/IP, although at some point he switched
Leor Zohlman's Brain-Damaged Systems (BDS) compiler (
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BDS_C) after we both left CMU.

In the late 1970s ('78 I think), Dennis Allison was teaching a course at
Stanford.  The assignment was to developed TinyBasic (for the 6502 IIRC).
Some of these got presented at an early AMW (talk to Bob Berg if you want
try to find the date).  This idea spread to a lot of places and the idea of
'TinyX' or SmallX was started.  By the late 1979/early 1980, Ron Cain (one
of his students I believe) used an SRI based UNIX system to develop his
'Small C' that he would publish the sources to in Byte and eventually a
book that was used to teach (which I still have):
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Small-C.  The Small C compiler would get
retargeted to the other 8-bit micros and you can find most of them with a
search engine.

The best I can tell, Leor and Ron worked independently of each other.
 Leor's compiler was a tad more complete and he actually wrote a UNIX clone
for the Z80 with it (I don't remember if Leor has fp support, Ron did
not).  Leor had access to the Ritchie compiler, but he seems to have
written it himself (you can search for and download the sources and decide
yourself).   Leor showed many of us his systems running on 3 8" floppies at
the Boston USENIX in the early 1980s [I remember dmr playing with it and
remarked how much it reminded him of early UNIX on the PDP-11].

Also, after I left CMU in 1979, I took the Ritchie compiler and retargeted
to what would become the 68000 (it was not yet released or numbered when I
started). Paul Blanter of Tek labs wrote the assembler and Steve Glaser and
I hacked v7's ld a little.   This was the original tool suite for the
Magnolia system.  The folks in the MIT RTS Group had started to retarget
the Johnson compilers to the 8086, the 68000 and eventually the Z8000 as
part of the NU project and Trix (I know Jack Test, who had previously been
at Stanford had is hand in this -- tjt wrote the MIT 68000 assembler that
used an MIT hacked version of V7's old,  I think John Siber did the
C8086).    Around the same time, CMU started the Mach project and created
the macho format.   Robert Baron and Mike Accetta were heavily involved,
but I think they took the MIT compilers as the basis for some of that work.

At some point (Steve can fill us in) I thought someone in USG started to
retarget his compilers for USG.   This is the source of the AT&T assembler
and is what ISC started with when they did the 386 ports a few years later
for AT&T that Heinz talked about a few weeks ago.

Meanwhile, Gordon Letwin who had been Purdue, EE, brought the Purdue
assemblers and forked from the C compiler work at some point.  He and Bob
Greenberg did the start of the compilers for original Xenix work for the
8086, we would have to ask Bob or Gordon for more details [Gordon is
believed to be the source the terrible curse, called the 'far' pointer].

By the early 1980s, a number of UNIX ports start and many C Compilers show
up.  I think the John Bass did the Onyx Z8000 C compiler independent of the
MIT code base, but the MIT NU C compilers and the NU UNIX port would become
used by a lot of the 'JAWS' work that would start to ramp in the early

Anyway -- the point is we all had access to the UNIX sources (sorry Larry)
we start to hack on them.  Plus different Universities doing compiler work,
like Andy Tannenbaum release compilers (ACK) independent of the AT&T code
origin but built/bootstrapped from UNIX/the UNIX toolkit.   Waterloo,
Edinburgh, and others also all put something out.   Plus you start to
commercial C implementations like Intermetrics, Tartan Labs, Greenhills (in
fact IIRC the Apple Mac C Compiler was developed under contract by

What I am leaving out is the BASIC and Pascal wars that were going on at
the same time.  The 8-bits micros, in particular, went BASIC crazy.  The
'CS types' at many Universities (like mine at CMU) had been considered
BASIC, C, and Fortran as 'ugly' and were using an Algol or a more
Algol-like language as the future (Pascal was premier teaching language at
the time).   For issues, we can talk about in COFF, Pascal diverged (in
1980 at one of the Hatfield and McCoy parties at Steve Glaser's, a couple
of us counted 14 incompatible 'HP-BASIC's and 8 different 'Tek Pascal' in

Here comes the final thing that happened...

By the early, mid-80s, all us UNIX folks were happy using UNIX derived C
compiler, like the NU suite.  But as Larry points out, there was a whole
group of people that could not get UNIX sources or tools.   Stallman sets
out to build his Gnu system and he needs a language and compiler.   I've
always been amazed he did not use LISP, other than the first tool he wanted
was EMACS, and get got CMU (Gosling's) codebase to start.   CMU-EMACS was
in C (plus his 'mock-lisp' creation).   So rms needed a C compiler  and
starts to hack mock-lisp to be more to his taste.   But to make it
widespread he needs a C compiler and microprocessor tools.   So he starts
to write his famous compiler -- which to me is that key thing he did.   The
Gnu project would release tools that ran pretty much anywhere and targeted
the popular micro's and generated 'good enough code.'

Cole's Law -- 'Simple Economics always beats Sophisticated Architecture.'

It turns out Paul Winalski and I were just talking about this last week.  I
very much believe C 'won' the war for economic reasons.
UNIX being 'Open Source' in the 70s to the Unversity types, did allow us to
hack and >>share<< the compilers, either Ritchie or Johnson based.
 Moore's Law caused the 16-bit micros to flourish and they ended up in
systems.   Unix taught a number of programmers the language and the tool
suite, then we went to the real world and wanted it.  Stallman's tools were

It did not matter that there were 'better' languages (Pascal had forked, we
also had new languages from OCAM to Modula, eventually C++ et al).   The
Gnu C compiler was cheap (free) and that was the final stroke.

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