Edsger Dijkstra

Edsger Dijkstra
Rotterdam, Netherlands
Associated organizations
Eindhoven University of Technology
Fields of study
Turing Award


Edsger Wybe Dijkstra was born on May 11, 1930, in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. His father was a chemist and his mother was a mathematician and in 1942, Dijkstra entered a top high school where he studied classical Greek and Latin, French, German, English, biology, mathematics, physics and chemistry. He earned degrees in mathematics and theoretical physics from the University of Leyden and a Ph.D. in computing science from the University of Amsterdam.

In March 1952 he took a part-time job as a programmer at the Mathematical Center in Amsterdam, where he worked until 1962. Here he would develop the shortest-path algorithm, a method for finding the most direct route on a graph or map. The algorithm came to him one morning in 1956, and was published in 1959. Dijkstra was also a co-designer of the first version of Algol 60.

In 1962 he became a mathematics professor at Eindhoven University of Technology, where he remained until 1984. In 1965 he formulated the dining philosophers' problem, which involved a problem faced by five philosophers sitting around a table, each with a bowl of rice and a single chopstick. Because eating requires two chopsticks, the challenge was to find an equitable method that would permit all of those at the table to eat without having anyone starve or having the entire table face deadlock. His solution addressed the issue of computing deadlock, where two or more competing processes infinitely wait for the other to finish.

Dijkstra was an advocate of structured programming and wrote a short research note in the March 1968 edition of the journal Communications of the ACM entitled "The GO TO Considered Harmful," which argued against the complexity of a feature in programming languages like Fortran and Basic that permitted programmers to write convoluted programs that jump around haphazardly.

Dijkstra was the recipient of many awards, notably the Association for Computing Machinery's prestigious Turing Award in 1972. He held the Schlumberger centennial chair in computer sciences from 1984 to 1999, when he retired.