Tribute: Niklaus Wirth, 1934-2024
The great computer scientist Niklaus Wirth has died, but his work will endure forever.
I come not to mourn Wirth, a computer science titan who passed away on Jan. 1 at 89, but to praise him. While the public won’t recognize his name, his contributions to the world of programming are unparalleled, leaving an indelible mark that shaped the trajectory of software development.
I cannot claim to have really met him, but I attended several lectures by him in the ’80s. He was, in a word, impressive.
A Swiss native, he spent much of his career at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETF), in Zurich. However, his work during a stint at Stanford University was instrumental in developing the programming languages Euler and PL360.
This laid the groundwork for his future contributions. His contributions to the Algol language were ignored. Telling, he forked his work when the Algol group chose Algol 68, and from it, he developed Pascal, a language that lives on today, while Algol is largely forgotten.
Indeed, Pascal is why I sought Wirth out. This language encourages good programming practices with structured programming and data structuring. It is a procedural programming language, designed to emphasize simplicity, flexibility, and efficient compilation.
Pascal, introduced in 1970, became a cornerstone in programming education and influenced a generation of programmers. Its simplicity and efficiency were particularly suited to the limited resources of early PCs, leading to widespread adoption in both academic and commercial settings.
Pascal’s Long Tail
While not widely used in production anymore, Pascal is still taught because it’s useful for teaching good programming habits.
That’s not to say, though, that while it’s perhaps best known as a training language, it hasn’t been useful in business. For example, Pascal was a leading classic Mac OS language, and integrated development environments such as Turbo Pascal were used to develop software on numerous platforms.
In 1976, inspired by his time at Xerox PARC, Wirth led the development of the Lilith workstation, a pioneering graphical workstation. This project also introduced Modula-2, a Pascal language evolutionary step forward with concurrency support and greater modularity.
From there, Wirth’s vision continued with the development of the Ceres workstation and the Oberon programming language and operating system. Oberon, like its predecessors, emphasized simplicity and efficiency, traits that were a hallmark of Wirth’s work.
Oberon was also the occasion on which he coined Wirth’s Law: “In spite of great leaps forward, hardware is becoming faster more slowly than software is becoming slower.”
Beyond his language development, Wirth was deeply involved in hardware design, particularly in the use of field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), demonstrating his versatility and commitment to integrating theory and practice.
ACM Turing Award Winner
Wirth’s accolades are numerous. He was awarded the prestigious ACM Turing Award in 1984 for his development of innovative computer languages. He also received numerous other honors, including the IEEE Computer Society’s Computer Pioneer Award in 1988 and 10 honorary doctorates from prestigious institutions.
Lest you think he was a dour academic, Wirth was also known for his sense of humor. Perhaps his best-known comment is when he was asked. “Is your name pronounced ‘Wirth’ or ‘Virth’?” He replied it depended on whether he was called by name or called by value. (OK, so you have to be a programmer to get it, but I’ve always thought it was hilarious.)
Besides, Wirth’s legacy is not just in the languages and tools he created but in his software development philosophy. You can read it yourself from his paper, “A Plea for Lean Software.” He championed the cause of lean, efficient software against the tide of increasing complexity. His approach to software development, emphasizing simplicity and elegance, continues to resonate in an industry often plagued by over-complication.
As Philippe Kahn, one of Wirth’s students and founder of Borland and numerous other technology companies, said of him, “Your legacy will continue to inspire generations of computer scientists and engineers.”
He’s right. Wirth’s insights have left a profound impact on the field. His passing is a significant loss, but his work and philosophy will continue to inspire future generations in the world of computing. Rest in peace, Professor Niklaus Wirth; your legacy endures in every line of efficient, elegant code written today.