The computer pioneer Niklaus Wirth has died

Niklaus Wirth, a prominent figure in the field of computer science, has passed away.
Niklaus Wirth, a prominent figure in the field of computer science, died on January 1, 2024, at the age of nearly 90. The esteemed professor of computer science at ETH gained global recognition for his pioneering work in creating the Pascal programming language in 1970. In 1984, he was the sole German-speaking computer scientist to be honoured with the Turing Award, often regarded as the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in the field of computer science.
He was a recipient of the Turing Award, a trailblazer in the field of computer science, and the creator of very influential programming languages: Niklaus Wirth has made significant contributions and attained notable success in the field of computer science. His most notable achievement is in the development of the Pascal programming language. Nevertheless, his influence extends beyond Pascal. Niklaus Wirth’s efforts and dedication have made significant and essential contributions to the global advancement of computer science. To this day, his efforts have had a profound influence on computer science and generations of programmers. Niklaus Wirth’s relatives reported that he died away serenely on January 1, 2024.

Niklaus Wirth was instrumental in creating the field of computer science in Switzerland. He successfully introduced computer science advancements from the United States, the foremost nation in computer development during that period, to Switzerland. This helped establish computer science as an independent field of research and profession in Switzerland. ETH President Joël Mesot remembers Niklaus Wirth as a significant figure who not only made groundbreaking contributions to programming language development, but also played a key role in the establishment of computer science in Switz Niklaus Wirth held the position of a professor at ETH Zurich for a span of 31 years, from 1968 to 1999. ETH Zurich was granted an autonomous Department of Computer Science and its corresponding degree course in 1981, owing to his and his colleagues’ unwavering determination.
Keen interest in technology from a young age
Niklaus Wirth, born on 15 February 1934 in Winterthur, shown a keen interest in technology from an early age. During his infancy, he actively engaged in aeroplane construction and successfully constructed his initial radios and amplifiers. Driven by his fervour, he enrolled as a student at ETH Zurich. He pursued a course of study in electrical engineering and successfully obtained a degree in the same field. Wirth obtained his Master’s degree from the University of Laval in Canada in 1960. His initial exposure to computers, programming languages, and compilers occurred during his time at the University of California in Berkeley. At that location, he ventured into the software industry and in 1963, he successfully obtained his PhD from Berkeley under the supervision of Harry Huskey. His research focused on the expansion of the programming language Algol 60.

Following his positions as assistant professor at Stanford University and the University of Zurich, he rejoined ETH Zurich in 1968 as a Professor of Computer Science. He continued to teach and conduct research in this field until 1999. During the periods of 1976-1977 and 1984-1985, he dedicated his time to conducting research at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC).

Over a span of 31 years at ETH Zurich, Niklaus Wirth pioneered the creation of several novel programming languages, including Euler, PL360, Algol W, Pascal, Modula, Modula 2, Oberon, and LoLa. In addition, he constructed the initial personal computers (PCs) in Switzerland and instructed the inaugural cohort of Swiss computer scientists. Furthermore, he authored numerous canonical publications that have been translated and disseminated globally. He was bestowed with multiple accolades, including the esteemed ACM Turing Award, which he achieved in 1984 as the sole German-speaking computer scientist to date. In 1988, he was honoured with the IEEE Computer Pioneer Award. The concept known as Wirth’s Law, which states that the rate at which software performance deteriorates is greater than the rate at which hardware performance improves, is named after Niklaus Wirth.

Pascal – the quest for an influential and uncomplicated programming language
In 1984, significant events occurred in the field of computer science and for Niklaus Wirth. Apple launched the Macintosh PC, IBM unveiled the IBM Personal Computer/AT, and Niklaus Wirth was honoured with the Turing Award, the most prestigious accolade in computer science, equivalent to a Nobel Prize in the natural sciences or the Fields Medal in mathematics. Wirth was honoured for his contributions in creating multiple programming languages, including Euler, Algol W, Modula, and Pascal.

Pascal is the most renowned contribution of Niklaus Wirth in the field of programming languages. The primary benefit of this is its straightforwardness and refinement. Pascal is founded upon the explicit principles of structural programming, as articulated by the computer scientist Edsger W. Dijkstra. It is also built upon a mathematical foundation defined by the computer scientist Tony Hoare, and incorporates Niklaus Wirth’s implementation of the Algol W concepts. This language effectively integrates sound programming principles with structured programming and data organising. Consequently, it rapidly gained popularity as a language for education. Pascal was the programming language that many generations of students, including those at ETH Zurich, used for their initial programming experience at universities worldwide.

Niklaus Wirth was always driven to pursue new challenges and never content with his past achievements. While Pascal is widely recognised as his most famous accomplishment, his contributions extend beyond that. He has also developed the successor language Modula-2, the Oberon system, and the “Lilith” workstation, which served as a precursor to later personal computers. Wirth dedicated his entire life to the continuous advancement and enhancement of his programming languages. The progression from Euler to Oberon marked the development of a language that embraced object-orientation and type hierarchy. Oberon aimed to achieve maximum strength and simplicity simultaneously. Niklaus Wirth aspired to create an invention that would cater to the general populace, according to the principle of being cost-effective and comprehensible.

Oberon was more than just a language. The result was an entire system and, in the end, the book “Project Oberon” was published, in which the software, language and hardware are described on around 500 pages – the pride and joy of his work: “I pursued the lifelong goal of developing a language that was as powerful as possible but as simple as possible. “Oberon represents the last stage in this sequence of development,” stated Niklaus Wirth.

Lilith – and her dedication to computer science in Switzerland
Switzerland currently holds a significant position in the field of computer science on a global scale, making numerous essential contributions to both the theoretical principles and practical implementation of the discipline. The state of affairs underwent a transformation till the 1970s: Although the United States had already created the first workstations and computer science was widely studied, Switzerland was behind in both education and practical implementation. An instance of this may be seen in Wirth’s Lilith, which only garnered the attention of the industry after several years.
Lilith was an early computer workstation that had a high-resolution visual screen and a mouse, making it a precursor to modern personal computers. Niklaus Wirth created it at ETH in 1980 as a foundation for several research software projects. Starting in 1982, academics from ETH made efforts to monetize the system, but their attempts were not successful. The PC underwent industrial development in the United States. Nonetheless, Lilith exerted a profound impact on an entire cohort of computer scientists. Niklaus Wirth created the Ceres computer system in 1986, following his work on Lilith. This system included the Oberon operating system and the Oberon programming language. The Ceres computers were utilised for the education of computer science students at ETH Zurich until around 2003.
The process of developing computer science at ETH and in Switzerland was not linear either: Niklaus Wirth and his colleagues initially had to overcome several obstacles. In the early 1970s, they initiated an endeavour to establish computer science as an independent academic discipline. Nevertheless, both the initial and subsequent endeavours proved unsuccessful. Nevertheless, in response to the evident scarcity of computer scientists in Switzerland, ETH Zurich decisively established computer science as a department and a degree course in 1981. The dedication of Niklaus Wirth and his colleagues established the groundwork for the advancement of computer science in Switzerland.