Edsger Dijkstra: RIP

Pioneer and wit

Dutch computer pioneer Edsger W Dijkstra has died, aged 72.

Over forty years, Dijkstra enriched software with many concepts, often expressed with such wit and clarity they make your teeth hum.

He most famously proselytised structured programming, but his work battled against an electronics industry that "solved no problems, only created new ones."

Revisiting his 1972 Turing lecture two years ago, Dijkstra wrote: "Computing's central challenge, viz. 'How not to make a mess of it', has not been met." He illustrated this with a parable.

Dijkstra described how he entered the field, before there was a recognizable field to enter:-

"In 1955 I took the decision not to become a theoretical physicist, but a programmer instead," he wrote.

"I had concluded that of theoretical physics and programming, programming embodied the greater intellectual challenge," he explained.

Two years later, however the Dutch marriage registrar refused to accept programmer as a profession, and instead put "theoretical physicist" he explained in his Turing lecture [480k PDF].

But Dijkstra shunned credit for his most famous, and overused aphorism: "considered harmful". He had this to say:-

"In 1968 the Communications of the ACM published a text of mine under the title "The goto statement considered harmful, which in later years would be most frequently referenced, regrettably, however, often by authors who had seen no more of it than its title, which became a cornerstone of my fame by becoming a templace: we would see all sorts of articles under the title 'X considered harmful' for almost any X, including one titled "Dijkstra considered harmful."

"But what had happened? I had submitted a paper under the title "A case against the goto statement, which in order to speed up its publication, the editor had changed into a 'Letter to the Editor', and in the process he had given it a new title of his own invention! The editor was Niklaus Wirth".

In his love letter to the genius of the Netherlands, Brilliant Orange, David Winner cites the Dutch sculptor Jeroen Henneman explaining the simplicity and elegance of a match-winning Bergkamp pass: "One moment the pitch is crowded and narrow. Suddenly it is huge and wide."

Edsger Dijkstra , who devised a single source Shortest Path Algorithm [more][animated applet], would have appreciated that. ®

Related Links

EWDs: Edsger Dijkstra manuscripts collection [10MB]
University of Texas, Austin: notice
EWD home page at University of Texas, Austin

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