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The successful first release of The Art of Computer Programming


The Art of Computer Programming: underestimating the size of the book
Donald Knuth Scientist
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I had the Table of Contents sketched out, the 12 chapters, from the first day, and I started filling in, chapter by chapter, and writing… and writing more material, and computer science is growing.  And I… it turned out I'm very bad, not only at estimating how long it's going to take to do a job, but also I wasn't very… at all good at estimating how large a book I was writing. I… I looked at my handwritten… I – my manuscript was all written out in hand – and I looked at my handwritten… you know, and my letters seemed a lot bigger than the letters in books.  And I'd looked at books, and I've certainly read a lot of books, and so it seemed to me that… that what I had written would be a… a fairly reasonable sized book. In fact I had… I… I got to the end of chapter 12, and after chapter 12 – I think it was ’64… '65 – of this handwritten draft, and I… I had 3000 pages. I had accumulated 3000 handwritten pages. Which I still have – the manuscript. And while I was working on these 3000 pages, I had written to Addison-Wesley saying… saying… they said, ’How's it going?’ I said, ‘Oh yeah, I'm writing… stuff is flowing.  Do you mind if I, you know, if I make it a fairly complete, you know, I find these other materials?’ They said, ‘Go right ahead’.

So I accumulated 3000 pages, and then I took it to a type… to my typewriter, and started typing. Now, I typed up chapter one, which was 400 pages… pages of typescript, or something like that, of manuscript, that's double-spaced. I may say, incidentally I… I got myself a… an IBM Selectric typewriter. This was very new at the time. I think they said… they told me later that I was the first private individual in California to buy one, instead of a company buying one. This was… this was the typewriter that had… that had a little ball, that… that would rotate and strike the page, and… and… but the important thing to me was the… the touch was much better than any other typewriter I had ever felt. When you hit… when you struck a key on the Selectric typewriter, it would transmit a signal, saying to the ball, to go this way, but it…you could strike several keys ahead, and the machine, internally, would buffer this, and remember where the keys that you had done, and then they would be sent to the ball.  You know, you type t-h-e real fast, and you can get to the e even before the t has… has finished printing, but the… the Selectric was designed so that you could do that. So I could type really… I mean like the first time I saw a Selectric typewriter in an IBM exhibit, I… I typed, you know – now is the time for all men, good men, to come to the aid of the party – faster than I had ever typed anything before. I looked at it… it came out perfect. And so I said, ‘I've got to have one of these typewriters’.  And so I bought myself a Selectric typewriter, and I had a… and I had a… I used it to type my thesis, at Caltech, and… and I had… I had been a good… I had been a… a, you know, a keyboard person, I'd been playing piano for a long time, and… and I learned… I learned machine shorthand the way court reporters do, and… and so I was… I had played a lot with, you know, a saxophone player and things like this, so this was… this was just another, typewriter. I… I could use this very… very well.

And so I started typing it, and I typed up my chapter one of the… of the 12 chapters, and sent it to Addison-Wesley, saying, here is, you know, here is the first chapter of my book. And then I got a letter from a person… he was the person who actually had been the first editor who came to talk to me in 1962.  But this was 1966, I think, by the time I had gotten to this point 3000 pages plus typing the chapter. And so I… so now I heard again from this same guy, but he had been promoted three levels in the company meanwhile, so now he was way up.  And, you know, he was saying, ‘What's going on here? You've got this book. Don, do you realize that your book is going to be more than 2000 pages? You know, and…’, what? I thought I had a six or 700 page book. I said, ‘You know, I thought, you know, I know, I've read books for years. How can you tell me that this book… that this book is going to be so long?’ So I went back to Thomas's Calculus, the… the original book that I had loved as a Freshman in college, and I typed out, you know…  They said, ‘Don…’, you know… I had felt five pages of my typing would go into one page of book, but they… but they said, ‘No, no, it was one and a half to one’. And I couldn't believe it, so I took Thomas's Calculus, and I typed out two pages of Thomas's Calculus on my typewriter. Sure enough, three pages of… of typescript went… went into two. So… so here I had a book that was… that was more than three times as big as I, you know, as I… as I thought. No wonder it had taken me this long to finish the darn thing. But then you know, they said, ‘Well we… nobody will be able to afford this book’.  You know, all publishers have their… have their horror stories about the professor who sends them a… a manuscript, you know, 10 volumes about the… the history of the egg, or something like this, you know, and it just lays a big egg. And so how are they going… how are they going to get around this problem?

Born in 1938, American computing pioneer Donald Knuth is known for his greatly influential multi-volume work, 'The Art of Computer Programming', his novel 'Surreal Numbers', his invention of TeX and METAFONT electronic publishing tools and his quirky sense of humor.

Listeners: Dikran Karagueuzian

Trained as a journalist, Dikran Karagueuzian is the director of CSLI Publications, publisher of seven books by Donald Knuth. He has known Knuth since the late seventies when Knuth was developing TeX and Metafont, the typesetting and type designing computer programs, respectively.

Tags: The Art of Computer Programming, Addison-Wesley, IBM Selectric Typewriter, Caltech, Thomas's Calculus, George B Thomas

Duration: 5 minutes, 45 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2006

Date story went live: 24 January 2008