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Home » Articles » The Development of the C Language

The Development of the C Language

Article Posted On Date : Monday, February 22, 2010

The Development of the C Language


The C programming language was devised in the early 1970s as a system implementation language for the nascent Unix operating system. Derived from the typeless language BCPL, it evolved a type structure; created on a tiny machine as a tool to improve a meager programming environment, it has become one of the dominant languages of today. This paper studies its evolution.


This paper is about the development of the C programming language, the influences on it, and the conditions under which it was created. For the sake of brevity, I omit full descriptions of C itself, its parent B [Johnson 73] and its grandparent BCPL [Richards 79], and instead concentrate on characteristic elements of each language and how they evolved.

C came into being in the years 1969-1973, in parallel with the early development of the Unix operating system; the most creative period occurred during 1972. Another spate of changes peaked between 1977 and 1979, when portability of the Unix system was being demonstrated. In the middle of this second period, the first widely available description of the language appeared: The C Programming Language, often called the `white book' or `K&R' [Kernighan 78]. Finally, in the middle 1980s, the language was officially standardized by the ANSI X3J11 committee, which made further changes. Until the early 1980s, although compilers existed for a variety of machine architectures and operating systems, the language was almost exclusively associated with Unix; more recently, its use has spread much more widely, and today it is among the languages most commonly used throughout the computer industry.

History: the setting

The late 1960s were a turbulent era for computer systems research at Bell Telephone Laboratories [Ritchie 78] [Ritchie 84]. The company was pulling out of the Multics project [Organick 75], which had started as a joint venture of MIT, General Electric, and Bell Labs; by 1969, Bell Labs management, and even the researchers, came to believe that the promises of Multics could be fulfilled only too late and too expensively. Even before the GE-645 Multics machine was removed from the premises, an informal group, led primarily by Ken Thompson, had begun investigating alternatives.

Thompson wanted to create a comfortable computing environment constructed according to his own design, using whatever means were available. His plans, it is evident in retrospect, incorporated many of the innovative aspects of Multics, including an explicit notion of a process as a locus of control, a tree-structured file system, a command interpreter as user-level program, simple representation of text files, and generalized access to devices. They excluded others, such as unified access to memory and to files. At the start, moreover, he and the rest of us deferred another pioneering (though not original) element of Multics, namely writing almost exclusively in a higher-level language. PL/I, the implementation language of Multics, was not much to our tastes, but we were also using other languages, including BCPL, and we regretted losing the advantages of writing programs in a language above the level of assembler, such as ease of writing and clarity of understanding. At the time we did not put much weight on portability; interest in this arose later.

Thompson was faced with a hardware environment cramped and spartan even for the time: the DEC PDP-7 on which he started in 1968 was a machine with 8K 18-bit words of memory and no software useful to him. While wanting to use a higher-level language, he wrote the original Unix system in PDP-7 assembler. At the start, he did not even program on the PDP-7 itself, but instead used a set of macros for the GEMAP assembler on a GE-635 machine. A postprocessor generated a paper tape readable by the PDP-7.

These tapes were carried from the GE machine to the PDP-7 for testing until a primitive Unix kernel, an editor, an assembler, a simple shell (command interpreter), and a few utilities (like the Unix rm, cat, cp commands) were completed. After this point, the operating system was self-supporting: programs could be written and tested without resort to paper tape, and development continued on the PDP-7 itself.

Thompson's PDP-7 assembler outdid even DEC's in simplicity; it evaluated expressions and emitted the corresponding bits. There were no libraries, no loader or link editor: the entire source of a program was presented to the assembler, and the output file—with a fixed name—that emerged was directly executable. (This name, a.out, explains a bit of Unix etymology; it is the output of the assembler. Even after the system gained a linker and a means of specifying another name explicitly, it was retained as the default executable result of a compilation.)

Not long after Unix first ran on the PDP-7, in 1969, Doug McIlroy created the new system's first higher-level language: an implementation of McClure's TMG [McClure 65]. TMG is a language for writing compilers (more generally, TransMoGrifiers) in a top-down, recursive-descent style that combines context-free syntax notation with procedural elements. McIlroy and Bob Morris had used TMG to write the early PL/I compiler for Multics.

Challenged by McIlroy's feat in reproducing TMG, Thompson decided that Unix—possibly it had not even been named yet—needed a system programming language. After a rapidly scuttled attempt at Fortran, he created instead a language of his own, which he called B. B can be thought of as C without types; more accurately, it is BCPL squeezed into 8K bytes of memory and filtered through Thompson's brain. Its name most probably represents a contraction of BCPL, though an alternate theory holds that it derives from Bon [Thompson 69], an unrelated language created by Thompson during the Multics days. Bon in turn was named either after his wife Bonnie, or (according to an encyclopedia quotation in its manual), after a religion whose rituals involve the murmuring of magic formulas.

Origins: the languages

BCPL was designed by Martin Richards in the mid-1960s while he was visiting MIT, and was used during the early 1970s for several interesting projects, among them the OS6 operating system at Oxford [Stoy 72], and parts of the seminal Alto work at Xerox PARC [Thacker 79]. We became familiar with it because the MIT CTSS system [Corbato 62] on which Richards worked was used for Multics development. The original BCPL compiler was transported both to Multics and to the GE-635 GECOS system by Rudd Canaday and others at Bell Labs [Canaday 69]; during the final throes of Multics's life at Bell Labs and immediately after, it was the language of choice among the group of people who would later become involved with Unix.

BCPL, B, and C all fit firmly in the traditional procedural family typified by Fortran and Algol 60. They are particularly oriented towards system programming, are small and compactly described, and are amenable to translation by simple compilers. They are `close to the machine' in that the abstractions they introduce are readily grounded in the concrete data types and operations supplied by conventional computers, and they rely on library routines for input-output and other interactions with an operating system. With less success, they also use library procedures to specify interesting control constructs such as coroutines and procedure closures. At the same time, their abstractions lie at a sufficiently high level that, with care, portability between machines can be achieved.

BCPL, B and C differ syntactically in many details, but broadly they are similar. Programs consist of a sequence of global declarations and function (procedure) declarations. Procedures can be nested in BCPL, but may not refer to non-static objects defined in containing procedures. B and C avoid this restriction by imposing a more severe one: no nested procedures at all. Each of the languages (except for earliest versions of B) recognizes separate compilation, and provides a means for including text from named files.

Several syntactic and lexical mechanisms of BCPL are more elegant and regular than those of B and C. For example, BCPL's procedure and data declarations have a more uniform structure, and it supplies a more complete set of looping constructs. Although BCPL programs are notionally supplied from an undelimited stream of characters, clever rules allow most semicolons to be elided after statements that end on a line boundary. B and C omit this convenience, and end most statements with semicolons. In spite of the differences, most of the statements and operators of BCPL map directly into corresponding B and C.

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