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Niklaus Wirth, Visionary Software Architect, Dies at 89

In 1999, an up-and-coming software engineer in Switzerland was preparing for a conference in France when he learned that the Swiss computer scientist Niklaus Wirth, a pioneer in the field, was also attending and would be on the same flight.

The engineer, Kent Beck, had never met Dr. Wirth. But, he recalled in an interview, upon arriving at the airport he told the gate agent: “My colleague Professor Wirth and I are flying together. Would it be possible for us to sit together?”

Mr. Beck, who would eventually become a well-known programmer in his own right, said that sitting next to Dr. Wirth and talking shop was comparable to a young singer getting the chance to perform with Taylor Swift. Among other feats in computer history, Dr. Wirth had created Pascal, an influential programming language in the early days of personal computing.

“It was out of character for me to be that bold,” Mr. Beck said of his duplicity, “but I would have regretted it the rest of my life.”

The agent assigned him the middle seat next to his supposed colleague, who had the window. Sitting down, Mr. Beck confessed to the fraud right away. Dr. Wirth was mildly amused. “Once a geek knows that you’re interested in what they geek about,” Mr. Beck said, “then the conversation is off and running.”

Dr. Wirth died of heart failure on Jan. 1 at his home in Zurich, his daughter Tina Wirth said. He was 89.

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