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Working on my typesetting program


Deciding to make my own typesetting program
Donald Knuth Scientist
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I was about to do my first real sabbatical, by…by going, and I… I was planning to go to Chile in… in 1978 and learn Spanish.  And… okay, so… but in February of 1977 I see these… these proofs from Winston's book and I know that it's done with… with pixels, with bits, with… and that is a computer science solution. That means these pixels are zeroes and ones, these are in every part of the… every tiny little part of the page you say, ink, yes or no, and yes or no, zeroes and ones, that's a computer. So… so printing had suddenly been reduced from a problem for metallurgists or a problem for optical… people in optics – you know, photography and lenses – to a problem in computer science, a problem about zeroes and ones. All of a sudden printing… high quality printing was… was just a matter of writing a computer program. And now, if anybody in the world can… can deal with zeroes and ones, it was me, right?
And, you know, I'd been studying, you know, looking at galley proofs for ages, and… and my father had [a] printing press in the basement, I didn't mention that. So, I'm interested in type and I also, you know, see now that it's a computer science problem. So I… so I had to change my whole life plan. I wrote to the people in Chile saying sorry, I have to stay… I have to stay in California because we have the equip… we have special equipment here that I'm going to need to do my… to do my work but during the next year I'm going to try to figure out a way to print my book by… by making it myself out of zeroes and ones instead of… instead of using any photographic or… or metal methods.  And then… and then… then I'd have perfect control over it, and if technology changes again, I'll be able to survive the change because I'll have the thing in digital form. And… and that was within a week of seeing these… the proofs of… of Pat Winston's book in February that I… that I made this decision to stay at Stanford for my sabbatical year and… and work on typography.

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: Chile, Spanish, California, Stanford University, Patrick Winston

Duration: 2 minutes, 16 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2006

Date story went live: 24 January 2008