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The life and works of programming wizard Donald Knuth

By HT School,

Knuth authored the magnum opus titled The Art of Computer Programming and won many accolades.

In 1990, Donald Knuth was awarded the academic title of Professor Emeritus of The Art of Computer Programming. (Illustration: Mohit Suneja)

Donald Knuth was born on January 10, 1938 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to German-Americans— Ervin Henry Knuth and Louise Marie Bohning. His father owned a small printing business and taught book-keeping.

Academic Pursuits
Knuth won a scholarship to study physics at the Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1956. He joined the Beta Nu Chapter of the Theta Chi fraternity. He was one of the founding editors of Case Institute’s Engineering and Science Review. He switched from physics to mathematics and received two degrees from Case in 1960. In 1963, with mathematician Marshall Hall as the adviser, he earned a PhD in mathematics from the California Institute of Technology.

Early Career
After obtaining PhD, Knuth joined Caltech’s faculty as an assistant professor. He accepted a commission to write a book on computer programming language compilers. Knuth decided that in order to do justice to the topic, he must first develop a fundamental theory of computer programming which took the shape of the The Art of Computer Programming. Just before publishing the first volume of The Art of Computer Programming (TAoCP), he left Caltech to accept employment with the Institute for Defense Analyses’ Communications Research Division, then situated on the Princeton University campus. Knuth then left his position to join the Stanford University faculty in 1969, where he now is Fletcher Jones Professor of Computer Science, Emeritus.

The Art Of Computer Programming
By 2011, the first three volumes and part one of volume four of his series had been published. Concrete Mathematics: A Foundation for Computer Science, second edition, which originated with an expansion of the mathematical preliminaries section of Volume 1 of TAoCP was also published. In April 2020, Knuth worked on part B of volume 4 and anticipated that it would have at least parts A through F. He also wrote Surreal Numbers, a mathematical novelette on John Conway’s set theory construction of an alternate system of numbers.

Creating TeX
When the second edition of Donald Knuth’s TAoCP was published in 1968, the entire book had to be typeset again because the Monotype technology had been largely replaced by phototypesetting and the original fonts were no longer available. Disappointed with it, he was motivated to design his own typesetting system. On May 13, 1977, he wrote a memo describing the basic features of TeX. The first version of TeX — TeX78, was written in the SAIL programming language to run on a PDP-10 under Stanford’s WAITS operating system.

Personal Life
Knuth married Nancy Jill Carter on June 24 1961, while he was a graduate student at Caltech. Their children are John Martin Knuth and Jennifer Sierra Knuth.

Awards and Recognition
In 1971, Knuth was the recipient of the first ACM Grace Murray Hopper Award. He received various other awards including the Turing Award, the National Medal of Science, the John von Neumann Medal and the Kyoto Prize. In 1990, he was awarded the one-of-a-kind academic title of Professor of The Art of Computer Programming, which has since been revised to Professor Emeritus of The Art of Computer Programming.

1. As an eighth grade student, Donald Knuth entered a contest to find the number of words that could be created by rearranging letters that form the words in ‘Ziegler’s Giant Bar’. The judges had identified 2,500 such words. Knuth used an unabridged dictionary and determined if each dictionary entry could be formed using the letters. Using this algorithm, he identified over 4,500 words to win the contest.

2. Knuth’s Chinese name is Gao Dena. In 1977, he was given this name by Frances Yao. Knuth said he embraced his Chinese name because he wanted to be known by computer programmers in China.

3. In addition to writings on computer science, Knuth also wrote religious works that is 3:16 Bible Texts Illuminated, in which he examined the Bible by a process of systematic sampling, namely an analysis of chapter 3, verse 16 of each book. He also wrote another book titled Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About, in which he had published the lectures titled — God and Computer Science.

(SOURCE:, Wikipedia)

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