Programming language pioneer Niklaus Wirth dies aged 89

5 Jan 2024

Niklaus Wirth in 2020. Image: Austrian Computer Society/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Wirth received a Turing Award in 1984 for his contributions to computer science, with his Pascal coding language being described as a foundation for future systems.

Niklaus Wirth, the creator of multiple coding languages and a pioneer of software design, has died aged 89.

Wirth died on 1 January 2024, according to a post by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). This is the same organisation that gave Wirth a Turing Award in 1984 for his many contributions to computer science. This award is sometimes referred to as the ‘Nobel prize of computing’.

Wirth grew up in Switzerland and earned his first degree at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in 1959, before travelling to the US to earn his PhD in 1963 at the University of California, Berkeley. After a stint at Stanford University, he returned to ETH in 1968, where most of his breakthroughs would take place until his retirement in 1999.

He is known for developing various programming languages throughout his life, with one of the most significant being Pascal. ACM said Pascal provided “a foundation for future computer language, systems and architectural research”.

Another coding language developed by Wirth was Oberon, a general-purpose programming language that permitted the “construction of new data types on the basis of existing ones and to relate them”, according to ETH.

Although this coding language didn’t lead to the same widespread impact as Pascal, ACM said it was implemented for different machines and achieved “the kind of program portability later made famous by Java”.

Following news of his death, various individuals spoke out to praise Wirth for his achievements. Epic Games founder and CEO Tim Sweeney said Wirth made programming “better for everyone”.

“Wirth was the creator of Pascal, and part of the earlier Algol group that in 1957 defined the foundations of modern programming languages,” Sweeney said on X. “‘Power through simplicity, simplicity through generality’ was the name of the game.”

Software engineer Bertrand Meyer described Wirth as a  “titan of programming languages, programming methodology, software engineering and hardware design”.

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Niklaus Wirth in 2020. Image: Austrian Computer Society via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic