A Life’s Work Interrupted
In this second of a two-part interview by Edward Feigenbaum, we find Knuth, having completed three
volumes of The Art of Computer Programming, drawn to creating a system to produce books digitally.
Don switches gears and for
a while and becomes what ed
feigenbaum calls “the World’s
There was a revolutionary new way to
write programs that came along in
the 1970s called “structured programming.” At Stanford we were teaching
students how to write programs, but we
had never really written more than textbook code ourselves in this style. Here
we are, full professors, telling people
how to do it, but having never done it
ourselves except in really sterile cases
with no real-world constraints. I was
itching to do it. Thank you for calling
me the world’s greatest programmer—
I was always calling myself that in my
head. I love programming, and so I loved
to think that I was doing it as well as anybody. But the fact is the new way of programming was something that I hadn’t
had time to invest much effort in.
with a new book on artificial intelligence, and the proofs of it were being
done at III [Information International,
Incorporated] in Southern California.
They had a new way of typesetting using lasers. All digital, all dots of ink.
Instead of photographic images and
lenses, they were using algorithms,
bits. I looked at Winston’s galley
proofs. I knew it was just bits, but they
I canceled my plan for a sabbatical
in Chile. I wrote saying “I’m sorry; instead of working on Volume 4 during
my sabbatical, I’m going to work on typography. I’ve got to solve this problem
of getting typesetting right. It’s only
zeros and ones. I can get those dots on
the page, and I’ve got to write this program.” That’s when I became an engineer. I did sincerely believe that it was
only going to take me a year to do it.
PHO TOGRAPH B Y TIMO TH Y ARCHIBALD
the motivation is his love
affair with books…
That goes very deep. My parents disobeyed the conventional wisdom by
teaching me to read before I entered
kindergarten. I have a kind of strange
love affair with books going way back.
I also had this thing about the appearance of books. I wanted my books to
have an appearance that other readers
would treasure, not just appreciate because there were some words in there.
For Part I of this interview, see Communications,
July 2008, page 35.
…and what had happened
to his books.
Printing was done with hot lead in the
1960s, but they switched over to using
film in the 1970s. My whole book had
been completely re-typeset with a different technology. The new fonts looked
terrible! The subscripts were in a different style from the large letters, for example, and the spacing was very bad. You
can look at books printed in the early
1970s and almost everything looked
atrocious in those days. I couldn’t stand
to see my books so ugly. I spent all this
time working on them, and you can’t
be proud of something that looks hopeless. I was tearing out my hair.
At the very same time, in February
1977, Pat Winston had just come out
But, in fact, it was to be a 10-year
project. the prototype user was
Phyllis Winkler, Don’s secretary.
Phyllis had been typing all of my technical papers. I have never seen her
equal anywhere, and I’ve met a lot of really good technical typists. My thought
was definitely that this would be something that I would make so that Phyllis
would be able to take my handwritten
manuscripts and go from there.
The design took place in two all-nighters. I made a draft. I sat up at the
AI lab one evening and into the early
morning hours, composing what I
thought would be the specifications