Knuth was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where his father owned a small printing business and taught bookkeeping at Milwaukee Lutheran High School, where he enrolled, earning achievement awards. He applied his intelligence in unconventional ways, winning a contest when he was in eighth grade by finding over 4,500 words that could be formed from the letters in "Ziegler's Giant Bar"; the judges had only about 2,500 words on their master list. This won him a television set for his school and a candy bar for everyone in his class.
Knuth had a difficult time choosing physics over music as his major at Case Institute of Technology (now part of Case Western Reserve University). He also joined Beta Nu Chapter of the Theta Chi fraternity. While studying physics at the Case Institute of Technology, Knuth was introduced to the IBM 650, one of the early mainframes. After reading the computer's manual, Knuth decided to rewrite the assembly and compiler code for the machine used in his school, because he believed he could do it better. In 1958, Knuth constructed a program based on the value of each player that could help his school basketball team win the league. This was so novel a proposition at the time that it got picked up and published by Newsweek and also covered by Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News. Knuth was one of the founding editors of the Engineering and Science Review, which won a national award as best technical magazine in 1959. He then switched from physics to mathematics, and in 1960 he received his bachelor of science degree, simultaneously being given a master of science degree by a special award of the faculty who considered his work exceptionally outstanding.
Upon receiving his PhD, Knuth joined Caltech's faculty as an associate professor.
He accepted a commission[when?] to write a book on computer programming languagecompilers. While working on this project, Knuth decided[when?] 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,[when?] and then seven,[when?] to thoroughly cover the subject. He published the first volume in 1968.
Computer science was then taking its first hesitant steps. "It was a totally new field," Knuth recalls, "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."
After producing the third volume of his series in 1976, he expressed such frustration with the nascent state of the then newly developed electronic publishing tools (especially those that provided input to phototypesetters) that he took time out to work on typesetting and created the TeX and METAFONT tools.
As of 2013[update], the first three volumes and part one of volume four of his series have been published.
He is also the author of Surreal Numbers, a mathematical novelette on John Conway's 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.
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.
In 2006, Knuth was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He underwent surgery in December that year and started "a little bit of radiation therapy... as a precaution but the prognosis looks pretty good", as he reported in his video autobiography.
He 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 San Serriffe".
He once warned a correspondent, "Beware of bugs in the above code; I have only proved it correct, not tried it."
The preface of Concrete Mathematics includes the following anecdote: "When Knuth 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 some of his colleagues, he was not going to teach the Theory of Aggregates, nor Stone's Embedding Theorem, nor even the Stone–Čech compactification theorem. (Several students from the civil engineering department got up and quietly left the room.)"
Knuth published his first "scientific" article in a school magazine in 1957 under the title "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).
Knuth's article about the computational complexity of songs, "The Complexity of Songs", was reprinted twice in computer science journals.
To demonstrate the concept, Knuth intentionally referred "Circular definition" and "Definition, circular" to each other in the index of The Art of Computer Programming, Volume 1.
At the TUG 2010 Conference, Knuth announced an XML-based successor to TeX, titled "iTeX" (pronounced [iː˨˩˦tɛks˧˥], with a bell ringing), which would support features such as arbitrarily scaled irrational units, 3D printing, animation, and stereophonic sound.
In recognition of Knuth's contributions to the field of computer science, in 1990 he was awarded the one-of-a-kind academic title of Professor of The Art of Computer Programming, which has since been revised to Professor Emeritus of The Art of Computer Programming.
——— (1996), Selected Papers on Computer Science, Lecture Notes (59), Stanford, CA: Center for the Study of Language and Information—CSLI, ISBN1-881526-91-7.
——— (1999), Digital Typography, Lecture Notes (78), Stanford, CA: Center for the Study of Language and Information—CSLI, ISBN1-57586-010-4.
——— (2000), Selected Papers on Analysis of Algorithms, Lecture Notes (102), Stanford, CA: Center for the Study of Language and Information—CSLI, ISBN1-57586-212-3.
——— (2003), Selected Papers on Computer Languages (cloth|format= requires |url= (help)), Lecture Notes (139), Stanford, CA: Center for the Study of Language and Information—CSLI, ISBN1-57586-381-2, ISBN 1-57586-382-0 (paperback)
——— (2003), Selected Papers on Discrete Mathematics (cloth|format= requires |url= (help)), Lecture Notes (106), Stanford, CA: Center for the Study of Language and Information—CSLI, ISBN1-57586-249-2, ISBN 1-57586-248-4 (paperback).
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. ISBN 1-57586-583-1 (cloth), ISBN 1-57586-582-3 (paperback)