ACM Turing Lecture 1972: The Humble Programmer Edsger W. Dijkstra

Complete text:
My translation in Spanish:

My translation in Catalan:

Original Document: (Typewriter)


I wonder if his regret at not publishing criticisms of emerging architectures (p. 4) led to, or at least supported, his decision to publish the now-famous Go-To Considered Harmful letter?

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Some great quotes in this essay.

The analysis of the influence that programming languages have on the thinking habits of its users, and the recognition that, by now, brainpower is by far our scarcest resource, they together give us a new collection of yardsticks for comparing the relative merits of various programming languages.

Another lesson we should have learned from the recent past is that the development of “richer” or “more powerful” programming languages was a mistake in the sense that these baroque monstrosities, these conglomerations of idiosyncrasies, are really unmanageable, both mechanically and mentally. I see a great future for very systematic and very modest programming languages.

In computer programming our basic building block has an associated time grain of less than a microsecond, but our program may take hours of computation time. I do not know of any other technology covering a ratio of 1010 or more: the computer, by virtue of its fantastic speed, seems to be the first to provide us with an environment where highly hierarchical artefacts are both possible and necessary.

We shall do a much better programming job, provided that we approach the task with a full appreciation of its tremendous difficulty, provided that we stick to modest and elegant programming languages, provided that we respect the intrinsic limitations of the human mind and approach the task as Very Humble Programmers.

10^10 is lost in some versions… 1010 has no meaning

I liked:

The sooner we can forget that FORTRAN has ever existed, the better, for as a vehicle for thought it is no longer adequate: it wastes our brainpower, is too risky and therefore too expensive to use. FORTRAN’s tragic fate has been its wide acceptance, mentally chaining thousands and thousands of programmers to our past mistakes.

I don’t particularly have a beef with FORTRAN; it did eventually move on. However, this tune is played over and over in the technology world. Wide acceptance tying us to dubious ideas that live on long past their time.

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Text from ACM: Turing Award: 1972 EDSGER WYBE DIJKSTRA.
By: Hamilton Richards
My translation to Spanish:

Department of Computer Sciences
The University of Texas at Austin
“In Pursuit of Simplicity”
A Symposium Honoring:
Professor Edsger Wybe Dijkstra.
May 12-13, 2000

A remarkable quote:

In 1967, when he had been at Eindhoven five years, Dijkstra’s professional life was falling apart. His colleagues in the mathematics department, still contemptuous of computing science, had essentially rejected the thesis of his first Ph.D. student. With his operating system completed, he sank into a depression, and the depression worsened.

"I realized that my previous projects had only been agility exercises. I now had to confront complexity itself and try to find out the best way to do difficult things. But it took me a long time to gather the courage to do that. Alan Turing committed suicide; Kurt Gödel was on and off in a mental hospital. I was terribly frightened.

"I greatly admire my wife for the way in which she guided me through that period. I was essentially incommunicado, hardly spoke, did not work. I would sit all evening silently staring at the white walls in our living room. Finally, one night at half past two, my wife collected me weeping on the carpet in that room.

"From that moment I realized that something had to be done. I started writing ‘Notes on Structured Programming’ for therapeutic reasons. When that text was written, I knew what I had to do, and I knew how I was going to attack it.

"The history of that text is also very amazing. I sent a copy to all of my colleagues in the department, and the reaction was silence or scathing remarks. But by that time I had recovered, and their remarks did not hurt me. So I mailed 20 copies to colleagues, half in Europe, half in the United States. Now, thanks to the Xerox machine, that text has been copied by thousands and thousands. It has gone over the world like wildfire. Years later, I still encounter people who say that they have a fourth or fifth generation copy, barely readable.”

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“Notes on Structured Programming” was required reading for me in college. I believe that I still have a copy of that at home (30+ years later).

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