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Inspiration to write Surreal Numbers


The successful first release of The Art of Computer Programming
Donald Knuth Scientist
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I fly to Massachusetts, and we have discussions about what are we going to do? And… and so they say, ‘Well, maybe we can think of something’. They… meanwhile, they showed the chapter to a few people, and the people liked it, so they… they weren't so… so leery about it.  But they said, you know, but I… I, my editor at the time, Norm… Norm Stanton, I… I saw… I happened to notice at lunch, the notes that he had written to himself, and said, terrific cost bind, and things like this. You know, I mean he was trying… he was trying to… to break the news to me gently, but what was I… what was I going to do? And you know, he was suggesting… they were suggesting, okay, you leave out this, you leave out this, you know, don't give the answers to the exercises. Instead of having professional illustrations, they'll just use the illustrations that I had… that I had put in my manuscript. They said they were charming, and things like this. Well, I thought they stunk. And… and I, you know, and I said, ‘No, I like Addison-Wesley because the quality of the books has been so superb; the illustrations have been, you know, top of the line. This is the reason I signed with you guys’. And my editor said to me afterwards, ‘Boy, you were courageous in there, standing up to the president of the company’, and all this. So… so they decided, well, maybe we'll publish it as three volumes, and then they changed their mind again, and they decided to publish it in seven volumes. So we set up a plan to… to publish The Art of Computer Programming in seven volumes. And that plan is still… is still officially there, but three volumes have been in print now for more than 30 years, and I'm working on Volume Four.
Now, the first… but the… the reason is because the subject… computer science didn't stop there, so… so the 3000 pages that I had written described the state of computer science in 1965. Well, a few things have been learned since… since 1965, so got to include those too. Well, the… the book went through several other stages. First they said, you shouldn't put in the answers to the exercises, we'll… we’ll publish them separately, as a… as a, you know, some people can order them or get them as a paperback. And we'll reproduce them just from the typescript. The… but after reviewers started reading the book, they said, ‘No, it'd actually be better to typeset those answers and put… include them in… in the book’.  And so when, in 1968, when the first edition really came out, it was… it was an expensive book, more expensive than all the other books in computer science, about twice – I mean it cost, I think $32 or something for… for Volume One. I… I forget what the price was; I… I could look it up.  While other books were selling for $10… $10, or something like this. And yet, in the first year it was adopted as a textbook by… by more than 50 universities, and in… and, you know, so we came out with… with another printing shortly after, and… and it became unbelievably successful, although it was… it was not an easy read, it was still… it was still, you know, it proved that… that there was a need for a book of this kind, in the… in the area.
So that's the beginning of The Art of Computer Programming. And in 19… and… and in 1968, in… in January, is when I got my first copies of that book.  The… since then, I believe it's something like three or 400,000 copies of Volume One have sold in English, and… and more than that in other languages.  So… I couldn't believe how… how successful that was… that was going to be. But if I had, you know, if I had known in 1962 that I was writing such a big book, and that it would… and that I would still be working on it when I'm 68 years old, I would… I would have certainly not said that I… I would go ahead with this. I… I thought that I was going to finish it before my son was born in 1965.

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, Massachusetts, Addison-Wesley, Norm Stanton

Duration: 5 minutes, 9 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2006

Date story went live: 24 January 2008