Writing history in about 20 minutes



Edsger W. Dijkstra


Here is an abstract from an interview with Edsger Dijkstra about his shortest path algorithm.

There’s a curious story behind your “shortest path” algorithm.

In 1956 I did two important things, I got my degree and we had the festive opening of the ARMAC.c We had to have a demonstration. Now the ARRA, a few years earlier, had been so unreliable that the only safe demonstration we dared to give was the generation of random numbers, but for the more reliable ARMAC I could try something more ambitious. For a demonstration for noncomputing people you have to have a problem statement that non-mathematicians can understand; they even have to understand the answer. So I designed a program that would find the shortest route between two cities in the Netherlands, using a somewhat reduced road-map of the Netherlands, on which I had selected 64 cities (so that in the coding six bits would suffice to identify a city).

What’s the shortest way to travel from Rotterdam to Groningen? It is the algorithm for the shortest path, which I designed in about 20 minutes. One morning I was shopping in Amsterdam with my young fiancée, and tired, we sat down on the café terrace to drink a cup of coffee and I was just thinking about whether I could do this, and I then designed the algorithm for the shortest path. As I said, it was a 20-minute invention. In fact, it was published in 1959, three years later. The publication is still quite nice. One of the reasons that it is so nice was that I designed it without pencil and paper. Without pencil and paper you are almost forced to avoid all avoidable complexities. Eventually that algorithm became, to my great amazement, one of the cornerstones of my fame. I found it in the early 1960s in a German book on management science—”Das Dijkstra’sche Verfahren” [“Dijkstra’s procedure”]. Suddenly, there was a method named after me. And it jumped again recently because it is extensively used in all travel planners. If, these days, you want to go from here to there and you have a car with a GPS and a screen, it can give you the shortest way.

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