The Laureates

Copyright © Klaus Tschira Stiftung / Peter Badge

Donald Ervin Knuth

Born 10 January 1938 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (USA)

Turing Award (1974) “for his major contributions to the analysis of algorithms and the design of programming languages, and in particular for his contributions to the ‘art of computer programming’ through his well-known books in a continuous series by this title”.

Donald Knuth owes his love of mathematics, education and music to his father, who was a teacher and organist. He owes his love of language and

writing to his mother, who worked in real estate management for more than fifty years. Knuth initially wanted to be a musician, but in 1956 he was enticed by a scholarship to study Physics at the Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland. In his second year, particularly disliking lab work, he switched to Mathematics instead. In 1957, he got his first publication – in the satirical magazine MAD, where he reported on his development of the Potrzebie unit system, in which the thickness of the 26th MAD edition served as a basic unit of length. He finished his Bachelor’s degree in 1960, was awarded his M.Sc. simultanuously by special vote of the faculty, in recognition of his exceptionally distinguished undergraduate work. In the autumn of that year he became a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena. In addition, he worked as a consultant for hardware and software development for the Burroughs Corporation. After completing his doctoral thesis in 1963, Knuth became first Assistant Professor of Mathematics at Caltech, and then in 1966 Associate Professor. In 1968 Stanford University appointed him Professor of Computer Science. In 1977, he was named Fletcher Jones Professor of Computer Science and from 1990 onwards, Professor of The Art of Computer Programming. In 1993, Knuth became Emeritus, although he is still active on the Stanford campus. He currently devotes himself to the completion of the seven-volume work of ‘The Art of Computer Programming’.

Donald Knuth was awarded the National Medal of Science of the USA in 1979; in 1982 he received the IEEE Computer Pioneer Award, in 1994 the Adelsköld Medal of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, in 1995 the John von Neumann Medal of the IEEE and the Harvey Prize of the Technion, in 1996 the Kyoto Prize of the Inamori Foundation, in 2010 the Katayanagi Prize of Carnegie Mellon University, in 2011 the Faraday Medal of the IET, and in 2012 the Frontiers of Knowledge Award of the BBVA Foundation. From 1980 to 2011, he was awarded 34 honorary doctorates.

Knuth is not only a Fellow of the American Academy of Science and Arts (since 1973); since 1975 he is a Member of the National Academy of Sciences (Class III, Section 33), and he is a Foreign Member of the Académie des Sciences, Paris (1992), of the Norske Videnskaps-Akademi (1993), a Corresponding Member of the Mathematisch-naturwissenschaftliche Klasse of the Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften (1998), a Foreign Member of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge (2003), of the Russian Academy of Sciences (2008), and a Member of the American Philosophical Society (Class 1) since 2012. In 2001, the minor planet “(21656) Knuth” was named after Donald E. Knuth.

He is married to Jill nee Carter since 1961, an artist, graphic designer, and author; they have two children. In his spare time, he enjoys playing keyboard music, especially on piano and organ.

Donald E. Knuth is not only a computer scientist, but also an artist, and not only because he has written the great multi-volume textbook ‘The Art of Computer Programming’. Currently, four of the seven planned volumes are available. Knuth developed for these books his own programming language (M)MIXAL and the processor architecture (M)MIX to be able to present the algorithms in a didactically more appealing way.

He is an artist also because since the 1970s – a time when books were often published as typewriter manuscripts – he has been developing the TeX typesetting system (derived from the Greek word τέχνη, craftsmanship). This has grown to become the world standard system for typesetting text and formulas in mathematics and science (and many humanities). In TeX, text and formulas are written in a language similar to html and then ‘translated’ by a compiler. The result are texts whose design satisfies the highest aesthetic demands. In addition, Knuth has developed several easily readable fonts for the typesetting of mathematical texts.