This week saw the passing of Dennis Richie, father of the C programming language and the Unix operating system. I don’t claim to know anything about the man; I reckon that for the seventy years he’s been on the planet most people would have not recognised him in the street. There will certainly be no flowers left in front of Unix Stores around the planet (because they don’t exist) or tribute tweets from rockstars. There will be no comparisons to Einstein from Barack Obama or claims of mateship from Bill Gates. But the fact remains that Richie set to work solving a problem in the 70’s that transformed the world as much as the invention of electricity a hundred years previously.

There is a point when a technology ceases to be seen anymore because it has become part of the invisible fabric of society: Richie’s work has reached that level. To illustrate, maybe you’re reading this on a smartphone on the train. There’s a 55% chance your phone is running a Unix derivative, almost 100% chance its underlying code is written in C or one of its family of descendants. The webpage was routed through telecoms hardware running programs written (ultimately) in a C-family language. The server it came from is running Unix, the page written by an editor running on Microsoft Windows (itself a world changer, originally coded in C, now C# – another descendant of C++ and Java, themselves children of C).

The train you’re on is being scheduled (however badly) by a program almost certainly written in a C language by people getting paid through a payroll system written in the same and probably running on a flavour of Unix. The sandwich in your bag had its flour milled by machines using C in their microprocessors powered by electricity generated from stations running the same technology. The filling was most likely delivered thanks to an order management system written in the same, and you’re probably sharing your journey with at least one person who is currently only alive because of a nifty piece of implanted bionics that has its instructions programmed in C. To paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke: any sufficiently adopted technology is indistinguishable from air.

So, two giants of technology died this week. One is quite rightly credited with a pivotal role in changing the way we use technology. The other, very quietly, actually changed the world.