Knuth was born in
Wisconsin, to Ervin Henry Knuth and Louise Marie Bohning. He describes his heritage as "Midwestern Lutheran German".: 66 His father owned a small printing business and taught bookkeeping. Donald, a student at
Milwaukee Lutheran High School, thought of ingenious ways to solve problems. For example, in eighth grade, he entered a contest to find the number of words that the letters in "Ziegler's Giant Bar" could be rearranged to create; the judges had identified 2,500 such words. With time gained away from school due to a pretend stomach ache, and working the problem the other way, Knuth used an unabridged dictionary and determined if each dictionary entry could be formed using the letters in the phrase. Using this algorithm, he identified over 4,500 words, winning the contest.: 3 As prizes, the school received a new television and enough candy bars for all of his schoolmates to eat.
In 1958, Knuth created a program to help his school's basketball team win their games. He assigned "values" to players in order to gauge their probability of getting points, a novel approach that Newsweek and CBS Evening News later reported on.
Knuth was one of the founding editors of Case Institute's Engineering and Science Review, which won a national award as best technical magazine in 1959. He then switched from physics to mathematics, and received two degrees from Case in 1960: his bachelor of science degree, and simultaneously a master of science by a special award of the faculty, who considered his work exceptionally outstanding.
After receiving his PhD, Knuth joined Caltech's faculty as an assistant professor.
He accepted a commission to write a book on computer
programming languagecompilers. While working on this project, Knuth decided that he could not adequately treat the topic without first developing a fundamental theory of computer programming, which became The Art of Computer Programming. He originally planned to publish this as a single book. As Knuth developed his outline for the book, he concluded that he required six volumes, and then seven, to thoroughly cover the subject. He published the first volume in 1968.
In the 1970s, Knuth described computer science as "a totally new field 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."
From 1972 to 1973, Knuth spent a year at the
University of Oslo among people such as
Ole-Johan Dahl. This is where he had originally intended to write the seventh volume in his book series, a volume that was to deal with programming languages. However, Knuth had only finished the first two volumes when he came to Oslo, and thus spent the year on the third volume, next to teaching. The third volume in the series came out just after Knuth returned to Stanford in 1973.
By 2011, Volume 4A had been published.Concrete Mathematics: A Foundation for Computer Science 2nd ed., which originated with an expansion of the mathematical preliminaries section of Volume 1 of TAoCP, has also been published. In April 2020, Knuth said he anticipates that Volume 4 will have at least parts A through F. Volume 4B was published in October 2022.
Knuth is also the author of Surreal Numbers, a mathematical novelette on
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.
Knuth has also appeared in a number of
Numberphile and Computerphile videos on
YouTube where he has discussed topics from writing Surreal Numbers to why he does not use email.
Works regarding his religious beliefs
In addition to his writings on computer science, Knuth, a
Lutheran, is also the author of 3:16 Bible Texts Illuminated, 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. Subsequently, he was invited to give a set of lectures at MIT on his views on religion and computer science behind his 3:16 project, resulting in another book, Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About, where he published the lectures "God and Computer Science".
In the 1970s the publishers of
Monotype in favor of
phototypesetting. Knuth became so frustrated with the inability of the latter system to approach the quality of the previous volumes, which were typeset using the older system, that he took time out to work on digital typesetting and created
While developing TeX, Knuth created a new methodology of programming, which he called
literate programming, because he believed that programmers should think of programs as works of literature. "Instead of imagining that our main task is to instruct a computer what to do, let us concentrate rather on explaining to human beings what we want a computer to do."
Knuth embodied the idea of literate programming in the
WEB system. The same WEB source is used to weave a TeX file, and to tangle a
Pascal source file. These in their turn produce a readable description of the program and an executable binary respectively. A later iteration of the system,
CWEB, replaces Pascal with
Knuth used WEB to program TeX and METAFONT, and published both programs as books: TeX: The Program, which was originally published in 1986, and METAFONT: The Program, which was originally published in 1986. Around the same time,
LaTeX, the now-widely adopted macro package based on TeX, was first developed by
Leslie Lamport, who later published its first user manual in 1986.
Knuth is an
organist and a
composer. Both Knuth and his father served as organists for Lutheran congregations. Don Knuth and his wife own a sixteen-rank organ in their home. In 2016 he completed a musical piece for
organ titled Fantasia Apocalyptica, which he describes as "translation of the Greek text of the
Revelation of Saint John the Divine into music". It was premièred in
Sweden on January 10, 2018.
Donald Knuth married Nancy Jill Carter on 24 June 1961, while he was a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology. They have two children: John Martin Knuth and Jennifer Sierra Knuth.
Chinese name is
Gao Dena (
simplified Chinese: 高德纳;
traditional Chinese: 高德納;
pinyin: Gāo Dénà). In 1977, he was
given this name by
Frances Yao, shortly before making a 3-week trip to
China. In the 1980 Chinese translation of Volume 1 of The Art of Computer Programming (
simplified Chinese: 电脑程序设计艺术;
traditional Chinese: 電腦程式設計藝術;
pinyin: Jìsuànjī chéngxù shèjì yìshù), Knuth explains that he embraced his Chinese name because he wanted to be known by the growing numbers of computer programmers in China at the time. In 1989, his Chinese name was placed atop the Journal of Computer Science and Technology's header, which Knuth says "makes me feel close to all Chinese people although I cannot speak your language".
In 2006, Knuth was diagnosed with
prostate cancer. He underwent surgery in December that year and stated, "a little bit of radiation therapy ... as a precaution but the prognosis looks pretty good", as he reported in his video autobiography.
Knuth 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". 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
He once warned a correspondent, "Beware of bugs in the above code; I have only proved it correct, not tried it."
Knuth published his first "scientific" article in a school magazine in 1957 under the title "The
Potrzebie System of Weights and Measures". In it, he defined the
fundamental unit of
length as the thickness of Mad No. 26, and named the fundamental unit of
force "whatmeworry". Mad published the article in issue No. 33 (June 1957).
When DEK 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 his colleagues, he was not going to teach the Theory of Aggregates, nor
Stone's Embedding Theorem, nor even the
Stone–Čech compactification. (Several students from the civil engineering department got up and quietly left the room.)
At the TUG 2010 Conference, Knuth announced a satirical
XML-based successor to TeX, titled "iTeX" (pronounced [iː˨˩˦tɛks˧˥], performed with a bell ringing), which would support features such as arbitrarily scaled irrational units,
3D printing, input from seismographs and heart monitors, animation, and stereophonic sound.
Fellow of the
Computer History Museum "for his fundamental early work in the history of computing algorithms, development of the TeX typesetting language, and for major contributions to mathematics and computer science." 1998
Donald E. Knuth, Selected Papers on Design of Algorithms (Stanford, California: Center for the Study of Language and Information—CSLI Lecture Notes, no. 191), 2010.
Donald E. Knuth, Companion to the Papers of Donald Knuth (Stanford, California: Center for the Study of Language and Information—CSLI Lecture Notes, no. 202), 2011.
Donald E. Knuth, MMIXware: A RISC Computer for the Third Millennium (Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag— Lecture Notes in Computer Science, no. 1750), 1999. viii+550pp.
Donald E. Knuth and Silvio Levy, The CWEB System of Structured Documentation (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley), 1993. iv+227pp.
ISBN0-201-57569-8. Third printing 2001 with hypertext support, ii + 237 pp.
Donald E. Knuth, Tracy L. Larrabee, and Paul M. Roberts, Mathematical Writing (Washington, D.C.: Mathematical Association of America), 1989. ii+115pp
Daniel H. Greene and Donald E. Knuth, Mathematics for the Analysis of Algorithms (Boston: Birkhäuser), 1990. viii+132pp.
Donald E. Knuth, Mariages Stables: et leurs relations avec d'autres problèmes combinatoires (Montréal: Les Presses de l'Université de Montréal), 1976. 106pp.
Donald E. Knuth, Stable Marriage and Its Relation to Other Combinatorial Problems: An Introduction to the Mathematical Analysis of Algorithms.
Donald E. Knuth, Axioms and Hulls (Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag—Lecture Notes in Computer Science, no. 606), 1992. ix+109pp.
abKnuth, Donald Ervin (1980). 计算机程序设计技巧 (Ji suan ji cheng xu she ji ji qiao) [The Art of Computer Programming]. Translated by Guan, JiWen; Su, Yunlin. Beijing: Defense Industry Publishing Co. I fondly hope that many Chinese computer programmers will learn to recognize my Chinese name Gao Dena, which was given to me by Francis Yao just before I visited your country in 1977. I still have very fond memories of that three-week visit, and I have been glad to see Gao Dena on the masthead of the Journal of Computer Science and Technology since 1989. This name makes me feel close to all Chinese people although I cannot speak your language.