Ken Thompson Biography

Ken Thompson is an American computer science pioneer and the principal inventor of the ‘UNIX’ operating system. He has made significant contributions to the field of computer science, including designing and implementing the original ‘UNIX’ operating system at ‘Bell Labs.’ Thompson is also credited for creating the ‘B’ programming language, which served as the precursor to the widely used ‘C’ programming language. Additionally, he co-created the ‘Plan 9’ operating system and the world champion chess-playing computer, ‘Belle.’ Thompson’s expertise extends to his work at ‘Google,’ where he co-wrote the ‘Go’ programming language. His notable achievements also include the development of regular expressions, early computer text editors, and defining the ‘UTF-8’ encoding. Recognized for his remarkable contributions, Thompson has received numerous awards and titles in the field of computer science.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: Kenneth Lane Thompson
  • Age: 80 Years, 80 Year Old Males
  • Family: mother: Clara Thompson
  • Born Country: United States
  • Computer Scientists
  • American Men
  • Height: 6’8″ (203 cm), 6’8″ Males
  • U.S. State: Louisiana
  • City: New Orleans, Louisiana
  • More Facts
  • Education: University of California, Berkeley
  • Awards:
    • 1983 · Unix – Turing Award
    • 1999 – National Medal of Technology and Innovation
    • 2011 – Japan Prize
    • 1990 – IEEE Richard W. Hamming Medal Tsutomu Kanai Award
    • 1982 – IEEE Emanuel R. Piore Award

Childhood & Early Life

Kenneth Lane Thompson, later known as Ken Thompson, was born on February 4, 1943, in New Orleans. He obtained a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering and computer science in 1965, followed by a master’s degree in the same field in 1966, both from the University of California, Berkeley. Thompson showed an early fascination with logic and began working on arithmetic problems in binary while still in grade school.


Thompson joined the industrial research and scientific development company Bell Labs in 1966. It was there that he collaborated with fellow researcher Dennis Ritchie on the Multics operating system. While working on Multics, Thompson created the Bon programming language. He also developed the Space Travel video game, which ran on Multics. However, Bell Labs later withdrew from the Multics project, so Thompson rewrote the game on an outdated Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-7 minicomputer.

Thompson and Ritchie went on to develop a more flexible operating system for the PDP-7. They included Rudd Canaday in their team to develop a hierarchical file system and other utility programs. Eventually, they created the Unix operating system, which was not tied to any specific computer hardware.

Realizing that Unix needed a system programming language, Thompson and Ritchie created the B programming language in 1969. Thompson also made significant contributions to regular expressions and developed the Compatible Time-Sharing System version of the QED computer text editor, which included regular expressions. He invented Thompson’s construction algorithm, which made expression matching faster.

Throughout the 1970s, Thompson and Ritchie continued to work on Unix. Thompson wrote the initial versions of Unix, while Ritchie advocated for the system and helped develop it. In 1980, Thompson was inducted into the National Academy of Engineering, and in 1983, he and Ritchie jointly received the Turing Award for their work on Unix.

In 1971, Thompson and Ritchie extended the B programming language and created the C programming language to address its limitations. They later rewrote Unix in C. Thompson also created a chess-playing program for Unix and collaborated with Joseph Condon to develop the world champion chess computer program, Belle.

Thompson made significant contributions to computer chess, including the development of endgame tablebases. He also assisted in the installation of the Unix operating system at UC Berkeley, which eventually became known as the Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD).

In the 1990s, Thompson and Ritchie worked on the Inferno operating system while continuing their research at Bell Labs. Thompson retired from Bell Labs in 2000 and currently works at Google. He is also known for co-writing the Go programming language with Robert Griesemer and Rob Pike.

Achievements and Recognition

Thompson’s contributions to computer science have been widely recognized. He became a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1985. His acceptance speech for the Turing Award, titled “Reflections on Trusting Trust,” presented the concept of the “Thompson hack” and is considered a pivotal work in computer security.

Thompson and Ritchie received numerous awards for their work on Unix and C, including the IEEE Richard W. Hamming Medal and the National Medal of Technology. They were also inducted as Fellows of the Computer History Museum. Thompson received the Tsutomu Kanai Award from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and shared the Japan Prize for Information and Communications with Ritchie.

Personal Life

Ken Thompson is married to Bonnie, and they have a son named Cory. He is a licensed pilot and owns his own plane.

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