Computer science pioneer Dijkstra dies

Edsger Dijkstra, one of the moving forces behind the acceptance of computer programming as a scientific discipline, has died. But his legacy lives on in every computer.

Rupert Goodwins
Rupert started off as a nerdy lad expecting to be an electronics engineer, but having tried it for a while discovered that journalism was more fun. He ended up on PC Magazine in the early '90s, before that evolved into ZDNet UK - and Rupert evolved with them into an online journalist.
Rupert Goodwins
2 min read
Edsger Wybe Dijkstra, one of the creators of the art and science of computer programming, has died. He was 72.

Born in Rotterdam in 1930, Dijkstra's career in Europe and the United States included some of the first computer simulations in aviation and architecture. A background in mathematics and science--his mother was a mathematician, his father a chemist--led to his applying similar disciplines of formal logic and methodology to computer programming.

Dijkstra was on the committee that created Algol, the first block-structured programming language and one that introduced many ideas behind Pascal, Basic and C. His practical skills, especially in discerning and coding algorithms, were also remarkable--he wrote the first Algol 60 compiler. Other ideas he invented or helped define include structured programming, stacks, vectors, semaphores, synchronized processes and the notorious deadly embrace--feared by multitasking programmers the world over--where two processes both stop while they wait for each other to continue.

In 1962, he became a professor of Mathematics at Eindhoven Polytechnic. He wasn't in favor of his chair being called the chair of computing science, as was becoming fashionable, because he felt that the profession of computing wasn't yet scientific enough. He spent the next decade developing many of his ideas and struggling to get programming recognized as a proper discipline, with formal design rules and an equal emphasis on teaching them.

Although this work met with considerable resistance, in 1967 he started writing and circulating papers on his ideas. At the time of his death, he had produced some 1,300 papers, mostly written with a fountain pen.

In 1973, Dijkstra became a research fellow for Burroughs, then one of the major computer companies, and in 1984 became a full professor at the University of Texas at Austin. His work was characterized not only by passion and intellect, but a wry sense of humor and a dislike of pulled punches. He was particularly acerbic about the many sins he considered encouraged by the Basic programming language, which he said irreparably harmed young programmers, and wrote a famous paper: Go To Statement Considered Harmful.

Dijkstra and his wife also enjoyed exploring U.S. state and national parks in their Volkswagen camper van, called the Touring Machine.

Dijkstra was the 1972 recipient of the Association for Computing Machinery's Turing Award, often viewed as the Nobel Prize for computing. He was a member of the Netherlands Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society. In 2002, the C&C Foundation of Japan recognized Dijkstra "for his pioneering contributions to the establishment of the scientific basis for computer software through creative research in basic software theory, algorithm theory, structured programming and semaphores".

He is survived by his wife, three children and two grandchildren.

Rupert Goodwins reported from London.