Niklaus Wirth, Titan of Computer Science and Creator of Pascal, Dies at 89

Liam Proven, in a nice obituary in The Register:

Swiss computer scientist Professor Niklaus Wirth died on New Year’s Day, roughly six weeks before what would have been his 90th birthday.

Wirth is justly celebrated as the creator of the Pascal programming language, but that was only one step in a series of important languages and research projects. Both asteroid 21655 and a law of computer design are named after him. He won computer-science boffinry’s highest possible gong, the Turing Award, in 1984, and that page has some short English-language clips from a 2018 interview. [...]

As described in C H Lindsey’s History of ALGOL-68 [PDF], when the ALGOL-W proposal was rejected, Wirth resigned from the committee, contributing a strong “Closing Word” to the November 1968 Algol Bulletin 29, containing gems such as:

I pulled out my copy of the draft report on ALGOL-68 and showed it to her. She fainted.

Instead, Wirth took his proposal, changed it to be somewhat less compatible with ALGOL, and released it in 1970 under the name Pascal.

Wirth’s Law encapsulates Wirth’s philosophy: “The hope is that the progress in hardware will cure all software ills. However, a critical observer may observe that software manages to outgrow hardware in size and sluggishness.” Or, as he rephrased it in his paper describing Project Oberon: “In spite of great leaps forward, hardware is becoming faster more slowly than software is becoming slower.” In many ways, this remains the fundamental problem of our entire industry. It’s a truism, and can only be mitigated.

He endorsed simplicity and clarity, and his languages and system designs exemplified those ideals. Studying computer science in the early to mid-1990s, I was among the last to learn Pascal as a teaching language. After outgrowing BASIC, I had actually started learning Pascal my senior year in high school, in a class with just two other students — thanks, Mrs. Spatz — and it was that class that made me want to study computer science in college.

And Pascal was to the original Macintosh what Objective-C was to Mac OS X — the language Apple established as the default for writing application software. Most of the apps that established the Macintosh as the platform for people with good taste in the 1980s and early 1990s were written in Pascal. THINK Pascal was an IDE years — maybe over a decade — ahead of its time. (There were good Pascal systems on the PC side of the fence too.)

Thursday, 11 January 2024