Highlight: Dr. Donald E. Knuth

As we announced last week, Dr. Donald E. Knuth was unanimously chosen to receive the third Dr. Peter Karow Award for Font Technology & Digital Typography. It would appear that we are not alone in thinking Dr. Knuth is rather amazing—since the award announcement, we’ve heard from his colleagues, friends, and fans from around the globe, congratulating the jury on making such a wise choice. Since Dr. Knuth is such an accomplished gentleman and scholar, we couldn’t limit his story to a single post. We’re delighted that Barbara Beeton, bug collector (aka TeX entomologist) for Dr. Knuth, was willing to share another chapter in his long and storied tale.


Dr. Donald E. Knuth is best known as a computer scientist, author of The Art of Computer Programming (often referred to by its acronym, TAOCP). A monumental undertaking originally projected to comprise seven volumes, TAOCP is intended to be an exposition of everything known about the subject. When Volume 1 was published in 1968, it was composed using the time-honored Monotype process, notable for its suitability for technical material.

The TAOCP project progressed smoothly for three volumes—published in 1968, 1969, and 1973—but advancements in the subject matter soon overtook the writing. When, in 1978, a second edition of Volume 2 was required, the Monotype was unfortunately dying out, replaced by newfangled “photocomposition.”

Dr. Knuth looked at his photo-typeset proofs in horror. Gone were the elegant text and math displays that exemplified a fine technical publication. In their place were pages full of words and symbols that, except for the use of typographic fonts, may as well have been prepared on a typewriter. This is not how Dr. Knuth felt his work should be presented to the world. He decided to take a break from writing and devise a method of harnessing zeros and ones to replicate the quality he knew possible from his experience with Monotype composition. Dr. Knuth guessed it might take six months, or at the outside, a year.

In the end, it took about ten years to create TeX (the composition software), Metafont (a program for creating fonts for use with TeX), and a collection of the fonts he needed to produce TAOCP, as well as a new approach to writing computer code—“literate programming.”

Enlisting his graduate students at Stanford University to help devise the algorithms for competent line and page breaking, automatic hyphenation, and the description of paths to form the shapes of letters, Dr. Knuth also studied traditional standards for fine math composition. He searched out instruction guides such as the one used by Oxford University Press, as well as the best examples of published material to use as a model. He sought the assistance and experience of skilled type designers, including Hermann Zapf, Richard Southall, and Charles Bigelow. These notables all came to Stanford to work with the TeX project, developing fonts for use with the new composition program and working with students interested in font design.

TeX was sprung on the world in January 1979 via the Josiah Willard Gibbs lecture at the yearly conference of the American Mathematical Society (AMS). In this annual lecture series, an eminent scientist is invited to present work related to mathematics, but otherwise on any topic of particular personal interest. Dr. Knuth’s topic was the use of the computer in the service of math composition and publication: “Mathematical Typography” (Bulletin of the AMS (new series) 1 (March 1979), 337–372).

Richard Palais, then president of the AMS Board of Trustees, listened to the lecture and determined that this was a system much needed by the Society (which was also feeling the loss of traditional hot-metal composition). After all, TeX sounded like it was a “black box,” ready for use. Not quite, as it turned out, but with the efforts of Dr. Knuth and a number of others dedicated to the cause, the system did finally become the accepted standard for computer-based composition of technical text.

TeX was perhaps the first major “open source” software, long predating creation of that term. The entire source code was published, fully annotated, and elegantly typeset by the system itself in the form of “literate programs.”

With the source code public, Dr. Knuth extended his standing request for readers of his books to submit errata, with the possibility of a small monetary reward ($2.56) given to the first person to submit a particular item. Rewards for users finding bugs in the software would start at $2.56, and double every year thereafter. The theory was that, with so many eager users sending reports, the system would be stable in very short order. However, users tried to discover more and more obscure bugs, and the reward was capped after seven iterations at $327.68. Rewards for errata found in the books remain at $2.56, with a few smaller sums awarded for suggestions.

Few sleuths have received the maximum reward, although many smaller checks have been issued. Recipients of even the top rewards have often kept their checks uncashed, finding a check from Dr. Knuth to be worth more in bragging rights than its monetary value. At some point, the account earmarked for rewards was hacked, and Dr. Knuth closed it. He now issues depository notes for comparable sums in the imaginary Bank of San Seriffe, where one “hexadecimal dollar” is equivalent to $2.56.

Now in its thirty-fourth year of existence, TeX is used by probably millions of people, not only for producing the technical material for which it was originally designed, but also for poetry, railroad timetables, guidebooks, and other publications in almost any language one can imagine—ancient or contemporary, natural (e.g., Linear B and Urdu) or invented (including Tengwar and Klingon).

The Metafont program is not used so much as TeX, bitmaps having been made obsolete by hinted outlines. But in some situations, where very fine control is desired, Metafont still shines: it is used by a number of computer-minded Arabic calligraphers who aim to emulate handwritten Arabic texts in inscriptional configurations not addressed by fonts designed for running text.

Unlike most academics these days, Donald Knuth doesn’t have an email address. When asked, long ago, why not, he replied, “Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things.” (He says more on the subject on one of his web pages.)

Dr. Knuth’s goal now is to complete the seven volumes (some now expanded to multiple parts) of TAOCP that he started in the early 1960s. His title at Stanford, Professor Emeritus of The Art of Computer Programming, embodies that goal, and that is what he devotes his time to when he is not interrupted to accept an award.

Barbara Beeton started work for the American Mathematical Society in midsummer 1962, around the same time Dr. Knuth commenced work on what would become his magnum opus. Coincidence or kismet? You be the judge. Since the mid-1990s, she has served as staff specialist for composition systems. Ms. Beeton is the editor of TUGboat, the member publication of the TeX Users Group, and has served on its board of directors since co-founding the organization in 1980. As impressive as her resume is, we think her being bug collector to Dr. Knuth is pretty much the coolest title ever.

Nicole Miñoza

I've been with the Adobe Type team since 2002, and am currently the Marketing Manager for Adobe Type and Typekit. I am also the mom of two adorable little girls and a big San Jose Sharks fan.

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