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Volume Three of The Art of Computer Programming


Designing the house in Stanford
Donald Knuth Scientist
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While we were in Princeton, every Sunday night, Jill and I would talk about what was our dream house. In fact, our first date, when we… at the library in… in Cleveland, we each… we started talking about our dream house, and it turned out we both had the same dream house.  So we both… I mean that's one of the things that we were meant for each other, we had thought of a bean-shaped house. Never got a bean-shaped house, but both of us had been thinking about it.  So… so anyway, we decided that we'd spend every Sunday night… hour, 2 hours… making plans up for what kind of a house we'd like to have when we move to Stanford. The kids were in bed; we had two children by that time – John was born in '65 and Jenny in '66 – so we… we made notes, you know, and we finally had… it was, I think about every room, what we wanted to do, and we came back… we came back here, and met a good… there’s lots of good architects in the area, and we thought… we met a man named Jim O'Neill, who we liked very much, and he listened… and he looked at our notes, and he, you know, he didn't laugh at them, but he… he gently pointed out that all of our plans were completely impractical, and you couldn't build these things, and all these triangular corners would just not work, and so… that we had planned. And he had very good sense of lighting, and how houses go together, so we… so he… he was a very good listener… so he knew what we really wanted, rather than what we had written in our plans. He… he was good at boiling these down into reality. And so we started making plans. We were, you know, just renting at the time – a house – until we… until we could finally build here, but we had the lot already.
Stanford has this wonderful idea that you can get an 80-year lease from the university and live on the campus, and… and the only downside is that all your neighbors are Stanford professors, you know, who are, tend to be a little kooky, but there we are. Now, one of the big ideas we had is that we should have rooms that are not all the same. On our honeymoon we had gone to visit baroque palaces, and we had seen places where, you know, there are grand… there are rooms that are large in scale, and… and rooms that are small, and so why should you have all the rooms about the same size? And, you know, we… we went to the… we went to Rome, and we saw Roman baths, and we said, ‘Oh we've got to have a big bathroom, you know, bathrooms should be big’. We figured a bedroom should be small and intimate. So we decided, you know, we said, ‘Let's have one big room for Jill to do her artwork, one big room for me, to have a pipe organ’. I can talk a little about pipe organs later, if you ask me. But I was, by that time I had been playing organ. I… I took… I took organ lessons in Princeton, at Westminster Choir College, while I was there. So it would be nice to… to have, you know, to have two big rooms, and then small rooms, somehow, but mostly a variety, so that you wouldn't have everything the same. Lots of other ideas about how we could make sure that, you know, we could keep an eye on the kids. We didn't want to have rooms where the kids could run around in circles, because we knew that that's, you know, a danger, and so various… various other plans.

So we're talking to the architect, and he… and one of our key ideas that we thought we had to have was a winding staircase… a circular staircase. It's very romantic. You need… need a house with a circular staircase. Well, as you'll notice being in this house, we don't have a circular staircase.  But that's one of the things… Jim drew up various plans… and plans one through 12 all had circular staircases, but he couldn't make the thing work. Finally we decided, okay, he's got this other one, plan number 13, which is basically what we have now, where we have the one, Jill's room on one side of the house, where it gets the… the north light, my room on the other side of the house. In between, where everybody's, you know, it's space for everybody, an expandable place for children – we were hoping to have more children.  And a place where students could stay, various things all put together, in the other part of the house. With the… now he wasn't as good at the small spaces though, as the big. We… we didn't get the small rooms that we wanted, he… so… so later on we… we actually built a partition in our bedroom, so that it, to make it into two… visually into two parts that are half as big.

Still this is the… the basic idea of the house. We… we knew it was going to be a house that we would… would live in the rest of our lives, and we wanted it to be adaptable for the future.  So, for example, it was a two-storey house; we didn't know if one of us might become crippled for some reason, so we made sure that there would be a place for an elevator, where we could… where we… in case we wanted to install an elevator if… if we needed it to get upstairs. And we could use it as a dumbwaiter meanwhile, for clothing or something. And then the people, you know, the… the builders came, and… and at the time the house cost almost $100,000, which was considered way out of… out of line. Now, of course, if you can get a… a house in Palo Alto for less than $1 million, you consider yourself very lucky, even a very small house. But at… at that time this was considered a rather large house, and we… we had to… we didn't have enough money in the bank to pay for it… everything.  But we… so… so we didn't put in the wood panelling until a year later, and by that time the price of wood had doubled. And we didn't put in the organ until 4 or 5 years later. If you look in my book, in the index to Volume Three, you'll see, Royalties comma Use of, and that refers you to a page where there's a picture of organ pipes. And… the fact that my book has… had been… had been selling well, meant that I got about a dollar for every copy that people bought, and… and, you know, that book has been amazing. It still sells more than 10 copies a day, every day of the year.

Born in 1938, American computing pioneer Donald Knuth is known for his greatly influential multi-volume work, 'The Art of Computer Programming', his novel 'Surreal Numbers', his invention of TeX and METAFONT electronic publishing tools and his quirky sense of humor.

Listeners: Dikran Karagueuzian

Trained as a journalist, Dikran Karagueuzian is the director of CSLI Publications, publisher of seven books by Donald Knuth. He has known Knuth since the late seventies when Knuth was developing TeX and Metafont, the typesetting and type designing computer programs, respectively.

Tags: Princeton, Cleveland, Stanford, Rome, Westminster Choir College, Palo Alto, Jim O'Neill, Jill Knuth

Duration: 7 minutes, 22 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2006

Date story went live: 24 January 2008