He is best known as a pioneering mathematician whose research has been of primary
importance in the analysis of computer algorithms - procedures by which
computations are carried out. He is also a leading investigator of programming
languages, and his work has been instrumental in establishing the field as a
Among his most widely acclaimed works is the series The Art of Computer
Programming. When he started writing it in 1962, he expected to finish by the
time his first child was born. That son, John, is now a Stanford graduate, and Knuth
has completed three volumes. Although his colleagues have characterized his work as
the bible and encyclopedia for computer science, Knuth says it is not finished. In
fact, he took early retirement in 1993, when he was only 55, to devote full time to
this task. He estimates that he will add about 250 pages per year, starting next
year, for 15 to 20 years before he is finished.
Part of the reason the project has turned into a lifes work is the rate at which
the field of computer science is developing, he said. In the 1960s I could be
exhaustive. Now I have to be content with boiling down the most
important developments into the clearest, most concise language possible.
But another reason is Knuths passion for perfection. When he saw the galleys for
the second volume of Programming from the printer, he was horrified at how
ugly they looked. My first edition had been typeset by hand and was very beautiful,
but the second edition had been typeset by computers. Knowing a computer was the
culprit made me even more upset, he said.
So Knuth applied his knowledge of mathematics and programming to the art of
typeface design and typesetting. He developed a document preparation system called
TEX and a font design system called METAFONT that first gave computers the ability
to control text layouts typographically and print with typeset quality. These
programs have been called the single most important achievement in publishing since
the invention of the printing press. Rather than copyrighting and licensing the
programs, Knuth put them in the public domain.