Writing in Quanta, Susan D’Agostino has a fascinating interview with the computing-est of all computer scientists, Donald Knuth. Who continues his Everest-like trek up his monumental Art of Computer Programming. This (intrinsically) never-to-be-completed opus to the mathematics and techniques of algorithms was, for many of us, the first introduction to formal analysis of algorithms and Dr. Knuth. But woven into the creation of ACP was the invention of TeX, the world’s most marvelous computer typesetting system.
TeX was only supposed to be for my secretary and myself. Phyllis [Astrid Benson Winkler] was a wonderful secretary. She could read my handwriting and make it beautiful. Printing technology was going down the tubes because the tried-and-true methods were becoming too expensive. Nearly every piece of mathematics published in the 1970s looked atrocious. In the American Mathematical Monthly, the subscripts were in a different font from main-line text. I knew computer programming could make books look good again.
I finished debugging a trial version of TeX in April 1973. In May, I had 10 users. In June, I had 100 users. In July, I had 1,000. Each new group would say, “You’ve gotta have this feature.” Five years later, I released what is essentially the TeX we have now. That was designed for Americans. Then the Europeans started to use it. So in the 1980s, I made it work for world languages.
Dr Knuth is too modest. For much of the development life of TeX, programming was done by Stanford graduate students funded by the Office of Naval Research. Never was Federal R&D funding so handsomely repaid, with an ABSOLUTELY FREE software system universally adopted by the scientific community.