Dijkstra’s musings on programming languages

Dijkstra didn’t like many of the early programming languages, except maybe for Algol and Pascal. Here are some of his more memorable quotes.

“To put it quite bluntly: as long as there were no machines, programming was no problem at all; when we had a few weak computers, programming became a mild problem, and now we have gigantic computers, programming had become an equally gigantic problem.” [1]

“The sooner we can forget that FORTRAN has ever existed, the better, for as a vehicle of thought it is no longer adequate: it wastes our brainpower, is too risky and therefore too expensive to use.” [1]

“FORTRAN’s tragic fate has been its wide acceptance, mentally chaining thousands and thousands of programmers to our past mistakes.” [1]

“When FORTRAN has been called an infantile disorder, full PL/1, with its growth characteristics of a dangerous tumor, could turn out to be a fatal disease.” [1]

“With respect to COBOL you can really do only one of two things: fight the disease or pretend that it does not exist. Most Computer Science Departments have opted for the latter easy way out.” [2]

“FORTRAN —”the infantile disorder”—, by now nearly 20 years old, is hopelessly inadequate for whatever computer application you have in mind today: it is now too clumsy, too risky, and too expensive to use.” [2]

“PL/I —”the fatal disease”— belongs more to the problem set than to the solution set.” [2]

“It is practically impossible to teach good programming to students that have had a prior exposure to BASIC: as potential programmers they are mentally mutilated beyond hope of regeneration.” [2]

“The use of COBOL cripples the mind; its teaching should, therefore, be regarded as a criminal offence.” [2]

“the teaching of BASIC should be rated as a criminal offence: it mutilates the mind beyond recovery.” [3]

[1] Dijkstra, E.W., “The Humble Programmer“, ACM Turing Lecture 1972
[2] Dijkstra, E.W., “How do we tell truths that might hurt?”, in Selected Writings on Computing: A Personal Perspective,
Springer-Verlag (1982)
[3] Dijkstra, E.W., “The threats to computing science”, EWD898 (1984)


One thought on “Dijkstra’s musings on programming languages

  1. Tim Bratcher says:

    …. and he said those thing about COBOL back in 1982…. and it’s still in use today. There’s good money to be made by anyone who a)knows it, and b)is willing to make a career of maintaining 30+ year old systems. The database program used by the bank I used to work for was still using software from the 80s…. when I got hired, they were using workstations with 640k RAM, running off DOS… and it was 2005.

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