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.” Continue reading…