Donald Knuth

Donald Knuth
Donald Ervin Knuth

Donald Knuth at a reception for the Open Content Alliance, October 25, 2005
Born January 10, 1938 (1938-01-10) (age 73)
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S.
Residence U.S.
Nationality American
Fields Mathematics
Computer science
Institutions Stanford University
Alma mater Case Institute of Technology
California Institute of Technology
Doctoral advisor Marshall Hall, Jr.
Doctoral students Leonidas J. Guibas
Michael Fredman
Scott Kim
Vaughan Pratt
Robert Sedgewick
Jeffrey Vitter
Andrei Broder
Bernard Marcel Mont-Reynaud
Known for The Art of Computer Programming
Knuth–Morris–Pratt algorithm
Knuth–Bendix completion algorithm
Notable awards Turing Award (1974)
John von Neumann Medal (1995)
Harvey Prize (1995)
Kyoto Prize (1996)

Donald Ervin Knuth (play /kəˈnθ/[1] kə-nooth; born January 10, 1938) is a computer scientist and Professor Emeritus at Stanford University.[2]

He is the author of the seminal multi-volume work The Art of Computer Programming.[3] Knuth has been called the "father" of the analysis of algorithms. He contributed to the development of the rigorous analysis of the computational complexity of algorithms and systematized formal mathematical techniques for it. In the process he also popularized the asymptotic notation.

In addition to fundamental contributions in several branches of theoretical computer science, Knuth is the creator of the TeX computer typesetting system, the related METAFONT font definition language and rendering system, and the Computer Modern family of typefaces.

As a writer and scholar,[4] Knuth created the WEB/CWEB computer programming systems designed to encourage and facilitate literate programming, and designed the MIX/MMIX instruction set architectures.


Early education

Knuth was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where his father owned a small printing business and taught bookkeeping at Milwaukee Lutheran High School, where he enrolled, earning achievement awards. He applied his intelligence in unconventional ways, winning a contest when he was in eighth grade by finding over 4,500 words that could be formed from the letters in "Ziegler's Giant Bar." The judges had only about 2,500 words on their master list. This won him a television set for his school and a candy bar for everyone in his class.[5]


Knuth had a difficult time choosing physics over music as his major at Case Institute of Technology (now part of Case Western Reserve University). He also joined Beta Nu Chapter of the Theta Chi fraternity. While studying physics at the Case Institute of Technology, Knuth was introduced to the IBM 650, one of the early mainframes. After reading the computer's manual, Knuth decided to rewrite the assembly and compiler code for the machine used in his school, because he believed he could do it better.[6] In 1958, Knuth constructed a program based on the value of each player that could help his school basketball team win the league. This was so novel a proposition at the time that it got picked up and published by Newsweek and also covered by Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News.[6] Knuth was one of the founding editors of the Engineering and Science Review which won a national award as best technical magazine in 1959.[7] He then switched from physics to mathematics, and in 1960 he received his bachelor of science degree, simultaneously receiving his master of science degree by a special award of the faculty who considered his work outstanding.[6]

In 1963, he earned a Ph.D. in mathematics (advisor: Marshall Hall) from the California Institute of Technology,[8] and began to work there as associate professor and began work on The Art of Computer Programming. He had initially accepted a commission to write a book on compilers which would later become the multi-volume The Art of Computer Programming. This work was originally planned to be a single book, and then planned as a six- and then seven-volume series. In 1968, he published the first volume. That same year, he joined the faculty of Stanford University, having turned down a job offer from the National Security Agency (NSA).[citation needed]


The Art of Computer Programming (TAOCP)

Computer science was then taking its first, hesitant steps. “It was a totally new field”, Knuth recalls, “with no real identity. And the standard of available publications was not that high (…). A lot of the papers coming out were quite simply wrong. (…) So one of my motivations was to put straight a story that had been very badly told”.

After producing the third volume of his series in 1976, he expressed such frustration with the nascent state of the then newly developed electronic publishing tools (especially those that provided input to phototypesetters) that he took time out to work on typesetting and created the TeX and METAFONT tools.

As of 2011, the first three volumes and part 1 of volume four of his series have been published.[9]

Other works

He is also the author of Surreal Numbers,[10] a mathematical novelette on John Conway's set theory construction of an alternate system of numbers. Instead of simply explaining the subject, the book seeks to show the development of the mathematics. Knuth wanted the book to prepare students for doing original, creative research.

Religious beliefs and work

In addition to his writings on computer science, Knuth, a Lutheran,[11] is also the author of 3:16 Bible Texts Illuminated,[12] in which he examines the Bible by a process of systematic sampling, namely an analysis of chapter 3, verse 16 of each book. Each verse is accompanied by a rendering in calligraphic art, contributed by a group of calligraphers under the leadership of Hermann Zapf.


No email

On January 1, 1990, Knuth announced to his colleagues that he would no longer have an e-mail address, so that he might concentrate on his work.[13]

Health concerns

In 2006, Knuth was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He underwent surgery in December that year and started "a little bit of radiation therapy […] as a precaution but the prognosis looks pretty good," as he reported in his video autobiography.[14]

Computer Musings

Knuth gave informal lectures a few times a year at Stanford University, which he called Computer Musings. He was also a visiting professor at the Oxford University Computing Laboratory in the United Kingdom and an Honorary Fellow of Magdalen College.[15]


Knuth is known for his "professional humor".

  • He used to pay a finder’s fee of $2.56 for any typographical errors or mistakes discovered in his books, because "256 pennies is one hexadecimal dollar", and $0.32 for "valuable suggestions". (His bounty for errata in 3:16 Bible Texts Illuminated, is, however, $3.16). According to an article in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Technology Review, these Knuth reward checks are "among computerdom's most prized trophies". Knuth had to stop sending real checks in 2008 due to bank fraud, and instead now gives each error finder a "certificate of deposit" from a publicly listed balance in his fictitious "Bank of San Serriffe".[16]
  • Version numbers of his TeX software approach the number π, in that versions increment in the style 3, 3.1, 3.14. 3.141, and so on. Similarly, version numbers of Metafont approach the base of the natural logarithm, e.
  • He once warned a correspondent, "Beware of bugs in the above code; I have only proved it correct, not tried it."[17]
  • All appendices in the Computers and Typesetting series have titles that begin with the letter identifying the appendix.
  • The Art of Computer Programming, volume 3 (1st ed.) has an index entry "Royalties, use of, 405". Page 405 has no explicit mention of royalties, but does contain a diagram of an "organ-pipe arrangement". Apparently the purchase of the pipe organ in his home was financed by royalties from the book.[18] (In the second edition of the work, the relevant page is 407.)
  • The preface of Concrete Mathematics includes the following anecdote: "When Knuth taught Concrete Mathematics at Stanford for the first time, he explained the somewhat strange title by saying that it was his attempt to teach a math course that was hard instead of soft. He announced that, contrary to the expectations of some of his colleagues, he was not going to teach the Theory of Aggregates, nor Stone's Embedding Theorem, nor even the Stone–Čech compactification theorem. (Several students from the civil engineering department got up and quietly left the room.)"
  • Knuth published his first "scientific" article in a school magazine in 1957 under the title "Potrzebie System of Weights and Measures." In it, he defined the fundamental unit of length as the thickness of Mad #26, and named the fundamental unit of force "whatmeworry." Mad published the article in issue #33 (June 1957).
  • Knuth's first mathematical article was a short paper submitted to a "science talent search" contest for high-school seniors in 1955, and published in 1960, in which he discussed number systems where the radix was negative. He further generalized this to number systems where the radix was a complex number. In particular, he defined the quater-imaginary base system, which uses the imaginary number 2i as the base, having the unusual feature that every complex number can be represented with the digits 0, 1, 2, and 3, without a sign.
  • Knuth's article about the computational complexity of songs, "The Complexity of Songs", was reprinted twice in computer science journals.
  • To demonstrate the concept, Knuth intentionally referred "Circular definition" and "Definition, circular" to each other in the index of The Art of Computer Programming Vol. 1.
  • At the TUG 2010 Conference, Knuth announced an XML-based successor to TeX, titled "iTeX" (pronounced [iː˨˩˦tɛks˧˥], with a bell ringing), which would support features such as arbitrarily scaled irrational units, 3D printing, animation, and stereographic sound.[19][20]


In 1971, Knuth was the recipient of the first ACM Grace Murray Hopper Award. He has received various other awards including the Turing Award, the National Medal of Science, the John von Neumann Medal, and the Kyoto Prize.

In recognition of Knuth's contributions to the field of computer science, 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.

In 1992, he became an associate of the French Academy of Sciences. Also that year, he retired from regular research and teaching at Stanford University in order to finish The Art of Computer Programming. In 2003 he was elected as a foreign member of the Royal Society.

Knuth was elected as a Fellow (first class of Fellows) of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics in 2009 for his outstanding contributions to mathematics.[21] He is a member of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters.[22]

Honors bestowed on Knuth include:


A short list of his works:[27]

  1. Volume 1: Fundamental Algorithms (3rd edition), 1997. Addison-Wesley Professional, ISBN 0-201-89683-4
  2. Volume 2: Seminumerical Algorithms (3rd Edition), 1997. Addison-Wesley Professional, ISBN 0-201-89684-2
  3. Volume 3: Sorting and Searching (2nd Edition), 1998. Addison-Wesley Professional, ISBN 0-201-89685-0
  4. Volume 4: Combinatorial Algorithms, Part 1, 2011. Addison-Wesley Professional, ISBN 0-201-03804-8
  5. Volume 4: Combinatorial Algorithms (remainder), in preparation
  • Donald E. Knuth, The Art of Computer Programming, fascicles:
  1. Volume 1, Fascicle 1: MMIX—A RISC Computer for the New Millennium, 2005. ISBN 0-201-85392-2
  2. Volume 4, Fascicle 0: Introduction to Combinatorial Algorithms and Boolean Functions. 2008. ISBN 0-321-53496-4
  3. Volume 4, Fascicle 1: Bitwise Tricks & Techniques; Binary Decision Diagrams. 2009. ISBN 0-321-58050-8
  4. Volume 4, Fascicle 2: Generating All Tuples and Permutations, 2005. ISBN 0-201-85393-0
  5. Volume 4, Fascicle 3: Generating All Combinations and Partitions, 2005. ISBN 0-201-85394-9
  6. Volume 4, Fascicle 4: Generating All Trees—History of Combinatorial Generation, 2006. ISBN 0-321-33570-8
  • Donald E. Knuth, Computers & Typesetting:[28]
  1. Volume A, The TeXbook (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1984), x+483pp. ISBN 0-201-13447-0
  2. Volume B, TeX: The Program (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1986), xviii+600pp. ISBN 0-201-13437-3
  3. Volume C, The METAFONTbook (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1986), xii+361pp. ISBN 0-201-13445-4
  4. Volume D, METAFONT: The Program (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1986), xviii+566pp. ISBN 0-201-13438-1
  5. Volume E, Computer Modern Typefaces (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1986), xvi+588pp.

See also


  1. ^ Knuth, Don. "Knuth: Frequently Asked Questions". Don Knuth's home page. Stanford University. Retrieved 2010-11-02. "How do you pronounce your last name? Ka-NOOTH." 
  2. ^ Donald Knuth's Homepage at Stanford.
  3. ^ The Art of Computer Programming (Stanford University).
  4. ^ Knuth's CV
  5. ^ Dennis Elliott Shasha; Cathy A. Lazere (1998). Out of their minds: the lives and discoveries of 15 great computer scientists. Springer. p. 90. ISBN 978-0-387-98269-4. 
  6. ^ a b c Thomas Koshy (2004). Discrete mathematics with applications. Academic Press. p. 244. ISBN 9780124211803. Retrieved 30 July 2011. 
  7. ^ History of Beta Nu Chapter
  8. ^ Finite Semifields and Projective Planes – Donald Knuth's Ph.D. dissertation
  9. ^ Knuth, Donald E.. "The Art of Computer Programming (TAOCP)". Retrieved 2011-11-04. 
  10. ^ Knuth, Donald (1974). Surreal numbers : how two ex-students turned on to pure mathematics and found total happiness : a mathematical novelette. Addison-Wesley. ISBN 978-0-201-03812-5. 
  11. ^ Love at First Byte. Stanford Magazine, May/June 2006.
  12. ^ Knuth, Donald (1991). 3:16 : Bible texts illuminated. A-R Eds.. ISBN 978-0-89579-252-5. 
  13. ^ Knuth, Donald Knuth versus Email last changed on 2005-09-23, Retrieved on 2008-12-29.
  14. ^ Great Lives – Donald Knuth, Coping with cancer.
  15. ^ "Professor Donald Knuth". Magdalen College. Retrieved 2010-12-06. 
  16. ^ "Rewriting the Bible in 0's and 1's" in the Technology Review of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  17. ^ Knuth, Don. "Knuth: Frequently Asked Questions". Don Knuth's home page. Stanford University. Retrieved 2010-11-02. 
  18. ^ "Pipe Organ" at Stanford site
  19. ^ A video recording, uploaded with Knuth's permission is available at River Valley TV
  20. ^ Knuth, Donald (2010). "An Earthshaking Announcement". TUGboat 31 (2): 121–124. ISSN 0896-3207 
  21. ^
  22. ^ "Gruppe 1: Matematiske fag" (in Norwegian). Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. Retrieved 7 October 2010. 
  23. ^
  24. ^
  25. ^
  26. ^ Andrew Myers (June 1, 2001). "Stanford's Don Knuth, a pioneering hero of computer programming". Stanford Report. Retrieved June 27, 2011. 
  27. ^ A complete list is also available: "Books" at Stanford site
  28. ^ A complete list is also available: "Books" at Stanford site
  29. ^ "Selected Papers" at Stanford site

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