“This guy’s arrogance takes your breath away”

“This guy’s arrogance takes your breath away” – Letters between John W Backus and Edsger W Dijkstra, 1979 by Jiahao Chen.

From the post:

Item No. 155: Correspondence with Edsger Dijkstra. 1979

At the time of this correspondence, Backus had just won the 1977 Turing Award and had chosen to talk about his then-current research on functional programming (FP) for his award lecture in Seattle. See this pdf of the published version, noting that Backus himself described “significant differences” with the talk that was actually given. Indeed, the transcript at the LoC was much more casual and easier to follow.

Dijkstra, in his characteristically acerbic and hyperbolic style, wrote a scathing public review (EWD 692) and some private critical remarks in what looks like a series of letters with Backus.

From what I can tell, these letters are not part of the E. W. Dijkstra archives at UT Austin, nor are they available online anywhere else. So here they are for posterity.

You won’t find Long form exchanges such as these in present-day near instant bait-reply cycles of email messages.

That’s unfortunate.

Chen has created a Github repository if you are interested in transcribing pre-email documents.

You can help create better access to the history of computer science and see how to craft a cutting remark, as opposed to blurting out the first insult that comes to mind.


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