Computer History

Donald Knuth: A Professional Biography

As a luminary in the field of computer science Donald Knuth has been named the “father of the analysis of algorithms” and has been the recipient of numerous prestigious awards. He is not only a mathematical and computer programming genius, but also a well-known professor, author, lecturer, and musician.

Younger Years

Born to German-American parents Ervin Henry Knuth and Louise Marie Bohning on January 10, 1938 in Wisconsin, Donald Ervin Knuth was a child prodigy. He went to Milwaukee Lutheran High School and was already showcasing his analytical genius after winning a contest in eighth’ grade by developing an algorithm that found 4500 words in the title of ‘Ziegler’s Giant Bar, beating the judges’ former measure at 2500 words.[1]

In college, Knuth majored in physics after receiving a scholarship at Case Institute of Technology, but later switched to mathematics. While in college, he stumbled upon an IBM 650 computer which he then used to build different computer programs. Among the popular programs he created was one used to analyse the performance of basketball players on the team he managed, thereby helping them win games.

Knuth is one of the rare individuals receiving two degrees in the same year. He earned his B.S. in mathematics in 1960, and was awarded an M.S. in mathematics as a special faculty award, which noted his academic performance as exceptional. [2] Three years later, he earned his PhD in mathematics at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech).

Academic Career

Knuth joined CalTech as an assistant professor after finishing his PhD in 1963. He later became an associate professor and continued teaching at the university until 1968. He left CalTech and moved to the Institute for Defense Analyses’ Communications Research Division (IDA) to do mathematical research, but left after one year.

After his brief stay at the IDA, he continued his career in academe by joining the faculty at Stanford University. He found his niche at Stanford and continued to teach there until his retirement in 1993. Honored as Professor of the Art of Computer Programming, he carried Emeritus status thereafter. During his stay, he created a number of important courses, among which were: Analysis of Algorithms, Concrete Mathematics, and Programming and Problem Solving Seminar.[3] Following retirement and until the present, he occasionally gives free lectures at Stanford University on various technical issues. He collectively calls his lectures “Computer Musings”. Considering his popularity his lectures were posted online at the Youtube channel, “stanfordonline”.[4]

Writing Career

Knuth is also widely recognized as the author of The Art of Computer Programming (TAOCP), a study in programming algorithms and methods implemented in computer systems. He began writing the book in 1962 while he was still working on his PhD. Prior to that, Knuth was writing compilers for different computers. His expertise in this reached the publisher Addison-Wesley by word of mouth and they closed a deal with him to write a book on compiler design. When he finished the first hand-written draft in 1965 with 12 chapters 5] the publisher decided to reorganize his draft into seven volumes and in 1968 the first volume was published. By 1973, the first three volumes of the book were published. Volume 4’s publishing was suspended due to production issues over typography usage. Much to Knuth’s dislike, Addison-Wesley’s use of computerized typesetting for the 1973 release of Volume 2 did not produce high quality prints. A known perfectionist, Knuth wanted to emulate the typesetting used for the original volumes and this was no longer available.

This led to another remarkable accomplishment, the TeX and Metafont digital typesetting systems which were used for subsequent releases of his TAOCP revisions. It was during the development of TeX that he came up with literate programming, a method of programming where a source code can be embedded in descriptive text. He later published the TeX and Metafont programs which he subsequently published. The TeXbook and The METAFONTbook were published in 1984 and 1986 respectively.[6] Interestingly, Knuth offered to pay $2.56 (256 pennies is one hexadecimal dollar), known as a Knuth reward check[7], for every error found in the books. This resulted in further fine-tuning of the content and more polished revisions of books later published.

Aside from TAOCP, Knuth also authored a mathematical book, Surreal Numbers. He has also written articles for the Journal of Recreational Mathematics and contributed to Joseph Madachy’s Mathematics on Vacation.

Raised a Lutheran, Knuth also wrote books related to his religion. He published 3:16 Bible Texts Illuminated providing an analysis of chapter 3, verse 16 of every book in the Bible. He was invited to give lectures based on this book which consequently led to writing Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About, based on his lecture on God and Computer Science.

Knuth’s brilliance and wisdom in computer science, displayed by his books, has been especially significant in the world of computer programming. He received over 100 awards for his works, two of which are highly reputable – the first ACM Grace Murray Hopper Award in 1971 and an ACM Turing Award in 1974.

Musical Inclination

Most computer geeks are more technical than creative. Knuth is one of the exceptions. In addition to his computer and mathematical expertise, he is an organist and a composer. His musical skills are likely inherited from his father, an organist. Notably he created a musical masterpiece, Fantastica Apocalyptica, a piece for organ, completed in 2016 celebrating the revelation of Saint John the Divine. It premiered in Sweden in 2018.

A Leading Light

A distinguished computer scientist and contemporary author, Knuth’s achievements in the field of mathematics and computer science are notably important and have inspired many aspiring programmers through the years. A well-deserved recipient of a multitude of awards, Knuth made computer programming an art throughout his career.

Sources:

  1. Wikipedia. “Donald Knuth”, N.d., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_Knuth Accessed 09 Oct 2020
  2. David Walden, “A.M. Turing Award – Donald (“Don”) Ervin Knuth”, N.d. https://amturing.acm.org/award_winners/knuth_1013846.cfm Accessed 09 Oct 2020
  3. Wikipedia. “Donald Knuth”, N.d., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_Knuth Accessed 09 Oct 2020
  4. Donald Knuth, “Computer Musings”, N.d., https://www-cs-faculty.stanford.edu/~knuth/musings.html Accessed 09 Oct 2020
  5. David Walden, “A.M. Turing Award – Donald (“Don”) Ervin Knuth”, N.d. https://amturing.acm.org/award_winners/knuth_1013846.cfm Accessed 09 Oct 2020
  6. Wikipedia. “Donald Knuth”, N.d., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_Knuth Accessed 09 Oct 2020
  7. Wikipedia. “The Art of Computer History”, N.d., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Art_of_Computer_Programming#History Accessed 09 Oct 2020

About the author

Glynis Navarrete

A freelance blogger who loves to write about anything related to technology. Born and raised in the Philippines and worked in Singapore for eight years as Technical Support for a wide range of IT equipment. Took a dive into the world of freelancing and now enjoying doing what I’m passionate about while not losing touch with technology.