Detail map of Stanford, California, United States,Bedford, Massachusetts, United States,San Francisco, California, United States

A: Stanford, California, United States, B: Bedford, Massachusetts, United States, C: San Francisco, California, United States

Donald Knuth Creates TeX and Metafont

1977 to 1979

Between 1977 and 1979 computer scientist Donald E. Knuth of Stanford University created the TeX page-formatting language and the Metafont character shape specification language, originally as a way of improving the typography of his own publications. These he described in four publications in 1979:

1. "Mathematical Typography," Bulletin (New Series) of the American Mathematical Society, March 1979, Vol. 1, No. 2, 337-72. Josiah Willard Gibbs Lecture, January 4, 1978.

2. TEX, a system for technical text.  A manual published by the American Mathematical Society, June, 1979.

3. Metafont, a system for alphabet design, September, 1979.

4. In December 1979 Digital Press in Bedford, Massachusetts, a division of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), together with the American Mathematical Society issued these three documents in book form as TEX and Metafont. New Directions in Typesetting, with a Foreword by C. Gordon Bell, then Vice President of Engineering at DEC, and a Preface by Knuth.

Preceding the development and wide-acceptance of PostScript (1984) and TrueType (1991), expectations for the impact of TeX and Metafont were appropriately great within the computer community. As a reflection of this, I quote Gordon Bell's 1979 introduction in full:

"Don Knuth's Tau Epison Chi (TeX) is potentially the most significant invention in typesetting in this century. It introduces a standard language for computer typography and in terms of importance could rank near the introduction of the Gutenberg press. The TeX system:

"•understands typography from individual charcters to page design;

"•permits any typewriter, word processing system, computer-based editor, or TeX system editor to be used as an input device with a standard language;

"•can typeset various formats and languages;

"•is structured to be user-extendable to virtually all applications.

"These improvements are benchmarks in typesetting and text creation. To date, computer-based typesetting systems have simply facilitated typesetting. Moreover, the proliferation of word processing systems makes possible the widespread direct transmission of text to typesetting without the intervening typesetting process—provided we use the standard language that TeX offers.

"A direct link between text input and typesetting will permit a drastic restructuring of the journal- and book-publishing industry, allowing it to be oriented substantially more toward the author. Unitl now, even authors with word processing equipment have been unable to participate in the representation of their message in print. Prior to Gutenberg's invention, manuscripts were conceived and designed simultaneously, and often the author's hand shaped the entire final product. The results were beautiful and varied, in contrast to the manufacture of most modern books, which vary only in cover design. With TeX, moreover not only can the author influence his own format and representation, but he also can produce more accurate material than can be rapidly mass-produced, shortening the time between idea and dissemination.

"TeX is significant as a standard language because of the way it understands typography using a framework of boxes and glue in a hierarchical fashion so that any font, page layout, or other typesetting parameter can be set. This is in striking contrast to most typesetting systems, which are built with no generality. Finally, the input form is user-defined by means of a macroprocessor so that virutally any text can be input and can control the typography part of the program. It is this generality and segmentation of function that makes TeX significant.

"This book is about much more than just the Tex system. The Gibbs Lecture presents the twin themes of how typography can help mathematics and how mathematics can help typography, and the material on METAFONT is intriguing and useful in its description of the use of mathematics in type design.

"While the emphasis of TeX is on mathematics, the system is equally applicable to and will no doubt be used in many other domains. Don Knuth, in fact, shows us precisely how the system can humanize basic communciations.

"At Digital, we hope to use TeX immediately, I urge others to adopt and use it so that the language standard can be established.

My copy of the first printing of TeX and Metafont was presented to the San Francisco book designer and book historian Adrian Wilson in February, 1980. Wilson worked in both letterpress and offset and designed many prize-winning books. On the first page of Bell's Foreword Wilson made pencil notes in the margin, taking issue with three points in the third paragraph. It is not clear that Wilson read past the Foreword; however, the points that Wilson made remain valid:

1. "Prior to Gutenberg's invention, manuscripts were conceived and designed simultaneously, and often the author's hand shaped the entire final product." Here Wilson commented, "Very rarely!"  I am unaware of any manuscripts prior to printing, except perhaps for author's manuscripts or the extremely few autograph manuscripts that survived, where it can be demonstrated that the author "shaped the final product" in the sense of its physical appearance on the page rather than in the textual sense. In addition, the process of manuscript copying by different scribes tended to make each manuscript copy different in subtle, or not so subtle ways, from each other.

2. "The results were beautiful and varied, in contrast to the manufacture of most modern books, which vary only in cover design." Here Wilson commented, "not so."  Bell's statement ignored, of course, the incredible diversity of all aspects of the design of "modern books" in addition to their covers.

3. "With TeX, moreover, not only can the author influence his own format and representation. . . ." Here Wilson commented, "author as designer! no." Before desktop publishing (1984-85) the ability of authors who were not programmers to design an acceptable looking book was, of course, highly limited. Even in 2012, when I wrote this database entry, few authors without expert knowledge of book design or graphic arts expertise could produce a genuinely attractively designed book.

Knuth continued his typographic work, issuing a second and larger volume entitled Digital Typography in 1999. This contains a remarkable collection of stories and technical papers concerning the continuation of his work in typography. In 2012 TeX and Metafont remained niche products for composing and scientific books and papers with the market dominated by PostScript and TrueType. As Richard Southall commented in Printer's type in the twentieth century. Manufacturing and design methods (2005) 224, footnote 6, "Donald Knuth's Metafont language, with its radically different approach to the specification of character image configurations, might have provided an alternative, and many ways a better, approach to typemaking if the interface it presented to designers had not been so forbidding."

On March 12, 2013 at a meeting of the Colophon Club in Berkeley, California I heard Knuth deliver a fascinating presentation on how and why he developed TeX and Metafont.  From this I gathered more general understanding of Knuth's system, which from the very beginning he placed in the public domain, and from which he never intended to profit. A more technical explanation of why TeX and Metafont remained niche products may be found in this posting from the website on December 15, 2004

"Metafont can only produce bitmap fonts which is a severe limitation. Nowadays, people usually create outline fonts since they are scalable and usable in different resolutions. There are tools that convert .mf to Type 1 or TrueType but this is done by autotracing which results in rather poor quality.

"There is a related product called Metapost, created by John Hobby, which allows parametric creation of PostScript graphics. This was later extended by Boguslaw Jackowski, Piotr Strzelczyk and Janusz Nowacki to MetaType1, an outline-based parametric font creation system. However, just like many other parametric font creation systems (e.g. Font Chameleon, Infinifont, LiveType), it never gained the necessary momentum. With no professional support and no solid user interface, the tools for creating these sorts of fonts were never able to reach a broad user base. Even Multiple Master fonts that had good user interface tools (Fontographer, FontLab) were dropped because handling them turned out to be too complicated and the revenues were too limited.

"Developing mature applications is a long and laborous effort. The commercial market is difficult, which is visible with the fact that numerous efforts such as Fontographer, FontStudio , TypeDesigner or RoboFog "died". The open source community is too weak to develop a good specialty tool of that sort (open source projects work well with mass products such as Mozilla or OpenOffice, with hundreds of engineers working in their spare time or on government/organizational funding).

"Today, with the exception of DTL FontMaster and FontForge (which is free), FontLab is the only font creation application that is actively being developed. First version of FontLab was created 12 years ago and in that process, we have learned that a good user interface is crucial to a success.

"Font creators are mostly designers, not engineers. They need visual tools. Also, type is often too subtle to rely on parametric creation. While it would be tempting to re-use the exactly same shape of a serif on n, m, i and l, often, subtle changes need to be made for best effect. The more subtle and refined the letterforms get, the less the parametric approach is useful. Donald Knuth's Computer Modern isn't a particularly well-designed typeface and frankly, I have never seen a good typeface made with Metafont.

"When people make a profession out of creating type, i.e. they make their living on type design, the issue of a tool being free becomes less relevant. Also, tools such as Metafont are only nominally free. There are no licensing costs but there are substantial costs of maintenance, support and learning. The learning curves are steep, the user communities are small and not integrated, there is no professional support. Therefore, if you work with tools such as Metafont, you're often left on your own. This is a fact often overlooked by those who advertise free or open source software.

"There is a good selection of links about parametric font creation at:" (accessed 03-13-2013).


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