Ken—an introduction in three syllables
How I got to know the great man — around forty years ago
Ken Thompson is one of the most influential people in my life. Few others have had a similar impact on the way I think and understand things. He even contributed directly to my somewhat devious sense of humour. The adventures I have been through with him and his family in close to forty years and around 30 visits are going to be the subject of a series of stories on my biographical blog.
The narrative of our first meeting is taken from a book produced by my wife Ingrid, for the Thompsons and friends and family. It was for the 30th anniversary of our friendship. Here’s the introduction I wrote for her book a decade ago:
In 1979 my TV science documentary colleague Volker Arzt and I were commissioned to take a trip around the world, visiting all the important Artificial Intelligence labs, on a general research project. On November 8th we checked into the Plaza Hotel in New York — our first stop. The next day I placed a call to a famous computer scientist, Ken Thompson, at Bell Labs in New Jersey. Our conversation went along the following lines:
Frederic: Dr Thompson, I am a science journalist working for German TV. We are on a research project, visiting important Artificial Intelligence facilities all over the world. I have heard that you are engaged in a very interesting project in the area of computer chess and are building a machine that essentially will encode its algorithms in hardware, to make it faster than big mainframes. Is that correct?
Fred: We are currently in New York and will be here a few days. We were wondering whether it would be possible for my colleague and me to meet you and learn what the goals of your project are and how they tie in with the general concepts of Artificial Intelligence research.
Fred: I see that Bell Laboratories is not so far from us, and we would be able to drive over on Saturday to visit you. I know it is the weekend, and you may have other plans, but if you allow us to come we will only take up an hour or two of your time.
So Volker and I set out for Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, on the basis of three syllables from Ken. At Bell Labs we met him and a colleague, Joe Condon (on the left in this picture). They were in the process of building a hardware chess machine — a pioneering effort at the time. It involved installing a large number of chips on printed circuit boards, which looked like this:
Belle, when it was completed a year later, was the first hardware driven chess-playing computer. It could do nothing but play the game — but was the strongest artificial chess playing system at the time. It became the first master-level machine in 1983 and won the ACM North American Computer Chess Championships of 1978, 1980, 1981, 1982, and 1986. It also won the 1980 World Computer Chess Championship in Linz, Austria. I made a documentary about that for German TV, and used Belle to stage the first experiment on cheating in chess. That was in 1981. More stories are bound to follow.
But back to New Jersey, November 10, 1979. After our discussions at Bell Labs Ken invited us to his house in Fanwood. We had a great time with him, his wife Bonnie and young son Corey. In the evening Volker and I insisted we would take care of dinner and went out to get pizzas. In the restaurant we found a splendid selection, and although the prices were a bit high by German standards, we ordered five pizzas to take away, for us all. To our horror they turned out to be something like 25 inches in diameter — in Germany a “pizza” is an 8–10 inch thing that serves one person. We took the square yards of delicious pizza back to Fanwood, to the great amusement of Ken and Bonnie.
That was the start of a friendship which has now lasted 39 years. I went back to stay with the Thompsons, in New Jersey and later in California, between twenty and thirty times. Ken and Bonnie visited us a few times in Germany, and their son Corey first came to stay (alone!) when he was fourteen. I had a great time with the lad scamming programmers with trick games. I went to Moscow with Ken, at the invitation of the Academy of Sciences, a meeting that was ruined when Belle was impounded by US authorities at Newark airport (story for another time). And I went flying a lot with him — Ken owns a plane and has a pilot’s licence. He even went to Russia to fly a Mig. Here a short bio of the great man:
Kenneth Lane Thompson (born February 4, 1943), is a leading pioneer of computer science. He worked for most of his career in New Jersey at Bell Laboratories. There, in the early 1970s, he designed the Unix operating system, which is still widely used today— in fact it is the heart of Android and iOS. Ken also created a programming language called B (after his wife Bonnie). It was the direct predecessor to C (as in Corey). In 2006 Ken moved to California and started working at Google. There he co-invented the Go programming language, which is rapidly becoming a world standard. Contemporary programmers tend to genuflect when Ken’s name is mentioned.