The Laureates

Copyright © Klaus Tschira Stiftung / Peter Badge

Niklaus E. Wirth

Born 15 February 1934 in Winterthur (Switzerland)

Turing Award (1984) “for developing a sequence of innovative computer languages, EULER, ALGOL-W, MODULA and PASCAL. PASCAL has become pedagogically significant and has provided a foundation for future computer language, systems, and architectural research.”

Niklaus Wirth is currently the only winner of the Turing Award whose mother tongue is German. His father was a professor for Geography and Geoscience at a Gymnasium in Winterthur. He took a diploma in 1958 in Electrical Engineering from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich. Then he moved to study in North America, doing a master’s in 1960 at the Université Laval in Quebec City, Canada. He then went to the University of California, Berkeley, where he received his doctorate in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (1963). Wirth subsequently remained in the San Francisco Bay Area and worked as an assistant professor of Computer Science at Stanford University. In 1967 he returned to Zurich as assistant professor at the University. In 1968 he moved to the ETH as professor of Computer Science and remained there until his retirement in 1999. In the years 1976-1977 and 1984-1985 Niklaus Wirth spent sabbaticals at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), also located on the Bay of San Francisco in California. His books “Systematic Programming” (1973) and “Algorithms + Data Structures = Programs” (1975) are among the most influential works in programmer training and are still used today.

Niklaus Wirth married twice and is a widower now; he has three children. Even today, one of his hobbies is electronics.

Niklaus Wirth is a member of the Swiss Academy of Engineering Sciences (1992), Foreign Associate of the U.S. Academy of Engineering (1994) and Fellow of the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California (2004). Besides ten honorary doctorates and the Ordre Pour le mérite (1996), he has received many other scientific awards, including the IEEE Computer Pioneer Award (1988), the IBM Europe Science and Technology Prize 1988 (1989), the ACM SIGSOFT Outstanding Research Award in Software Engineering (1999), the Leonardo da Vinci medal of the Société Européenne pour la Formation des Ingenieurs (1999) and the Eduard Rhein Technology Award Munich (2002).

In the late 1960s, several computer languages already existed. Among the latest achievements was Algol, developed by a team of 13 computer scientists led by John Backus, Friedrich Ludwig Bauer, John McCarthy, and Peter Naur.

Niklaus Wirth had since 1964 also participated in Algol, but for various reasons stepped back from the group. Instead he started his own project: Pascal, a language (like ALGOL)  whose syntax was rigorously defined in the Backus-Naur formalism, and which he named after the French mathematician Blaise Pascal. In 1970 Pascal was published and was used in particular for the training in programming, since a significant advantage of the language was its clear structure that made programs easy to understand and thereby reduced the likelihood of mistakes.

Pascal was implemented in the early 1970s on several large computers and used in teaching at many universities. However, the main breakthrough occurred only with the advent of the minicomputer around 1975, which introduced computing in offices and schools to many people. For, due to its relative simplicity, Pascal could be implemented even on small computers.

Successors of Pascal are the languages Modula-2 (1979) and Oberon (1988), which accommodated the novel concepts of modular and object-oriented programming. Moreover, Wirth devoted himself to the design of hardware. Within his research team, the innovative computer Lilith was designed and built (1980), and later Ceres (1985-89).