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Niklaus Wirth, visionary software architect, dies at 89| GuyWhoKnowsThings


In 1999, a promising software engineer in Switzerland was preparing for a conference in France when he learned that Swiss computer scientist Niklaus Wirth, a pioneer in this field, was also attending and traveling on the same flight.

Engineer Kent Beck had never met Dr. Wirth. But, he recalled in an interview, upon arriving at the airport he told the gate agent: “My colleague Professor Wirth and I are flying together. Would it be possible for us to sit together?

Mr. Beck, who would eventually become well-known programmer in his own right, he said that sitting next to Dr. Wirth and talking business was comparable to a young singer getting the opportunity to perform with Taylor Swift. Among other feats in computing history, Dr. Wirth created Pascal, a programming language influential in the early days of personal computing.

“It wasn't like me to be so bold,” Beck said of his duplicity, “but I would have regretted it for the rest of my life.”

The agent assigned him the middle seat next to his supposed colleague, who had the window. Sitting down, Mr. Beck immediately confessed to the fraud. Dr. Wirth seemed somewhat amused. “Once a geek knows you're interested in what he's interested in,” Beck said, “then the conversation starts to work.”

Dr. Wirth died of heart failure on Jan. 1 at his home in Zurich, said his daughter Tina Wirth. He was 89 years old.

He was not as well known as programmers like Steve Wozniak, who founded Apple with Steve Jobsor Bill Gates, who founded Microsoft with Pablo Allen. But to Beck and legions of computer scientists, Dr. Wirth was one of the most influential and inspiring scientists of the early computer age.

In 1970, while teaching at a Swiss university ETH Zurich, Dr. Wirth launched Pascal, the programming language that powered the first Apple computers and early versions of applications like Skype and Adobe Photoshop. He also built one of the first personal computers and was instrumental in helping a Swiss startup commercialize the mouse. (Startup, Logitechbecame one of the largest computer accessories manufacturers in the world).

The Association for Computing Machinery honored Dr. Wirth in 1984 with the Turing Award, often called the Nobel Prize in Computing. Other recipients included Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, and Vinton G. Cerf, who wrote the code that powers communication on the Internet.

For Dr. Wirth, simplicity was paramount in computing, and he created Pascal (named after Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century French mathematician and calculator inventor) as a simpler alternative to languages ​​like BASIC, which he considered too cumbersome. .

BASIC forced programmers to “jump all over the place, writing spaghetti code,” Philippe Kahn, a former student of Dr. Wirth who went on to found several technology companies, told New York Times journalist Steve Lohr in an interview for his book “Go To (2001), a history of software.

“Pascal forced people to think clearly about things and in terms of data structures,” Kahn said. He added: “Wirth's influence is extremely profound because many of the people who were taught in real computer science programs learned Pascal. It was the language of classical thought in computing.”

Dr. Wirth evangelized for simplicity in a fundamental essay for Computer magazine in 1995. “Increasingly, people seem to misunderstand complexity as sophistication,” he wrote, “which is disconcerting: the incomprehensible should cause suspicion rather than admiration.”

Niklaus Emil Wirth was born on February 15, 1934 in Winterthur, Switzerland, the only child of Walter Wirth, a geography teacher, and Hedwick (Keller) Wirth, who managed the family home.

He was a precocious child.

“In primary school, I first wanted to be a steam engine driver and then a pilot,” he recalls in one interview 2014. “I never aspired to be a scientist, but rather an engineer who understands nature and does something useful with this knowledge.”

He set up a chemistry laboratory in the family basement. He played with the radios. And he built (and crashed) remote-controlled helicopters. Arranging them taught him an early lesson in simplicity.

“If you have to pay out of pocket,” he told BusinessWeek in 1990, “you learn not to make corrections too complicated.”

Dr. Wirth studied electrical engineering at ETH Zurich, a university of science and technology. After graduating in 1959, he earned his master's degree from Laval University in Quebec and his doctorate. in programming languages ​​from the University of California, Berkeley. He taught in Stanford's newly formed computer science department from 1963 to 1967 and then returned to Switzerland.

At the request of ETH officials, Dr. Wirth opened a computer science department. When he tried to identify which programming language he would teach, he found the options to be too complex. He began working on Pascal and in 1971 used it to teach an introductory programming course.

Dr. Wirth made no attempt to monetize Pascal. In fact, he sent the source code on nine-track tapes to anyone who wanted it. This act of collegial generosity coincided with the microprocessor revolution, so that teachers, budding programmers, and computer startups would have a free, easy-to-use language.

“Pascal,” Dr. Wirth liked to say, “was a public good.”

In 1976, Dr. Wirth took a year off to work at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center, which had created the Alto, one of the first desktop computers with a graphical interface controlled by a mouse.

“I was given an Alto computer all to myself, on my desk, and that was an absolute change in the way computers were used,” Dr. Wirth remembered in Computer magazine in 2012.

Dr. Wirth coveted an Alto, but it was not for sale. Then, when he returned to Switzerland, he built a similar computer, with his own new programming language.

His first marriage, to Nani Jucker in 1959, ended in divorce. In 1984 he married Diana (Pschorr) Blessing. He died in 2009.

In addition to his daughter Tina from his first marriage, Dr. Wirth is survived by two other children from that marriage, Chris Wirth and Carolyn Wiskemann; six grandchildren; five great-grandchildren; and his partner since 2017, Rosmarie Müller.

Accepting his Turing Award, Dr. Wirth spoke with awe of the first time he experienced the power of personal computing at Xerox.

“Instead of sharing a large monolithic computer with many others and fighting for a share over a cable with a 3 kHz bandwidth, I was now using my own computer sitting under my desk over a 15 MHz channel” , said. “The influence of a 5,000-fold increase on something is not predictable; It's overwhelming.”

Instead of him working for the computer, the computer now worked for him.

“For the first time,” he said, “I conducted my daily correspondence and wrote reports with the help of a computer, instead of planning new languages, compilers, and programs for others to use.”


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