Academics won’t be typecast no more

All the world’s maths and science problem sheets look essentially the same.

If you’ve been taught these subjects at university, you might recognise them: too-wide margins, a serif font that’s more old-fashioned than Times New Roman, surprisingly good-looking equations and numbered section headings that are more reminiscent of an old textbook than something made on a modern computer. There’s a reason for that.

Problem Sheet Two

Almost all science professors’ notes and problems are written using something called \LaTeX (that final X is a Greek chi, pronounced like the ch in loch), a typesetting program that’s an extension to \TeX, designed in the 1970s by Donald Knuth, one of the fathers of computer science as we know it today.

In 1962 – the same year that Purdue University became the first American institution to offer a computer science degree – Knuth began a multi-volume book, The Art of Computer Programming. At the time, newspapers and book publishers still used hot metal typesetting, a technology developed in the 1890s.

Instead of manually placing metal blocks in order, typesetting machines allowed operators to press buttons on a keyboard, causing brass moulds to fall into place. When a line was completed, the moulds were cast with molten lead. The lead slug was ejected and used for printing before being re-melted. The Linotype machine (so called because it produced a whole line o’ type at once) even had space bands which adjusted themselves to fill the room between words, automatically justifying text.

Though qwerty keyboards were invented in the 1870s, Linotypes had their own 80-key layout. Copyright 2006 Marc Dufour for Wikimedia.

Though qwerty keyboards were invented in the 1870s, Linotypes had their own 90-key layout. Copyright 2006 Marc Dufour for Wikimedia.

Though they revolutionised the speed at which newspapers could be written, hot metal typesetting machines were gradually replaced in the 60s by smaller, safer and quieter electronic phototypesetting machines. These produced lower-quality text, however – something noticed by Donald Knuth on publication of the second volume of his book in 1977.

He set out to create a system which would allow anyone to make book-quality publications on a computer by automating most of the typesetting process: you just need to tell \TeX which part of the text is a title, chapter heading, caption and so on, and it works out where they need to go. As a mathematician and computer scientist, Knuth made sure that his system could render equations as well.

Since its first release in 1978, \TeX has been continually developed both by Knuth and via 3rd-party extensions, of which \LaTeX is the most popular. Since version 3, Knuth has considered \TeX functionally complete, and the minor versions released since have been numbered with successive digits of pi (we’re currently up to 3.14159265).

The near-ubiquity of \LaTeX in academia (and the fact that it’s even built in to WordPress, letting me set \LaTeX with minimal effort), is testament to its power and ease-of-use. So if you ever have to write a problem sheet, or a textbook, or prepare a paper for publication, you can thank Donald Knuth for high-quality typesetting without breathing in lead fumes.

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