Back in the early sixties he started to write a book analyzing computer algorithms … that is, an effective method, written as a list or some other simple description of a specific technique to solve a particular problem. As I alluded to in a previous article on this blog, an algorithm is like a “recipe.”
When the first volume of Donald Knuth's The Art of Computer Programming was published in 1969, it was typeset using hot metal type set by a Monotype Corporation typecaster with a hot metal typesetting machine from the 19th century which produced a "good classic style" appreciated by Knuth.When the second edition of the second volume was published, in 1976, the whole book had to be typeset again because the Monotype technology had been largely replaced by photographic techniques, and the original fonts were no longer available. However, when Knuth received the galley proofs of the new book on 30 March 1977, he found them awful.Around that time, Knuth saw for the first time the output of a high-quality digital typesetting system, and became interested in digital typography. The disappointing galley proofs gave him the final motivation to solve the problem at hand once and for all by designing his own typesetting system. On 13 May 1977, he wrote a memo to himself describing the basic features of TeX.
His new creation included an advanced font control system called Metafont and also included a special language for entering complex mathematical equations called LaTeX.
(Back then, IBM had a library at every development site and I was good friends with the manager of the Boulder library as I had been in there taking courses on programming and computers since I was first hired by IBM back in the seventies. I had a lot to learn and the library had lecture tapes in Beta format that I would watch on the consoles there.)
As an aside, Donald Knuth is a serious Christian. He wrote a very interesting and scientific analysis of the entire Bible called "3:16 Bible Texts Illuminated." This interesting book analyzes the Bible by studying verse 3:16 in each book. It is illustrated with many diverse fonts produced by Knuth's friends and colleagues in the publishing business. It is a good book for people of faith, as well as printers and scientists, and it presents a fascinating view of the Holy Scriptures. It is also strong evidence of the Christian Faith in a leading scientist for those that think Christianity is just about tradition and superstition.
Knuth taught me to write programs like classical music or fine poetry. The Art of Programming indeed. That is why I recommend that all children today … in this highly technological world … learn to program. A complete education must include reading and writing and arithmetic, and that includes reading and writing programs and calculating the result of the mathematical algorithms. That’s a well rounded education. It’s STEM plus Art and Design, and Programming is an art.
My coding art is not on the level of Knuth's or many co-workers that I met at IBM and elsewhere. But I can read and understand code well enough to recognize and appreciate the beauty of a well written algorithm. I wish everyone had that ability, especially some of the programmers I've met. Well written code is a symphony and poetry and fine art. It is not as obvious as other scientific endeavors such as architecture or bridge building, but the beauty is there for those that know the language.