Thursday, May 18, 2006

Donald Knuth

In 1957, a lanky, bespectacled college student named Donald Knuth caught a glimpse of a beautiful stranger through a window and fell deeply in love. The object of his affection blinked enticingly back at him. It was an IBM Type 650, one of the earliest mass-produced computers and the first Knuth had ever seen. Although computer science wasn’t even really a science yet, Knuth was a goner.

As he would later muse in a memoir, “There was something special about the IBM 650, something that has provided the inspiration for much of my life’s work. Somehow this machine is powerful in spite of its severe limitations. Somehow it is friendly in spite of its primitive man-machine interface.” Knuth saw it as his passport to the new, man-made landscape of computer science, a world he would never tire of exploring.

From this profile by Kara Platoni in the Stanford Magazine. Knuth is the author of The Art of Computer Programming. Here's a quick tale about this multi-volume epic:

In the early ’60s, publisher Addison-Wesley invited Knuth to write a book on compiler design. Knuth eagerly drafted 3,000 pages by hand before someone at the publishing house informed him that would make an impossibly long book. The project was reconceived as the seven-volume The Art of Computer Programming. Although Knuth has written other books in the interim, this would become his life’s work. The first three volumes were published in 1968, 1969 and 1973. Volume 4 has been in the works nearly 30 years.

And, check this out:

He famously regards e-mail as a time sink and no longer reads it -— except for correspondence (printed out by a department secretary) ...


  1. Anonymous said...

    Abi, thanks for the note.
    A correction to the Stanford Magazine link:

  2. Abi said...

    Hi Selva: Thanks for pointing out the 'missing link'! I have corrected it now.

  3. Anonymous said...

    Great man, Knuth. CS owes him.