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Adobe co-founder and PostScript co-creator Charles Geschke dies, aged 81

Mathematician and massive figure in digital publishing lives on in every PDF

Charles Geschke, co-founder of Adobe and co-creator of PostScript - and a reason this story is visually appealing - died Friday, April 16, at the age of 81.

Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayan sent an announcement of Geschke’s passing to staff that included this tribute from his collaborator of five decades, John Warnock:

In 1982, Chuck and I agreed that we should leave Xerox and start our own company. That was the beginning of Adobe. I could never have imagined having a better, more likable, or more capable business partner. Not having Chuck in our lives will leave a huge hole and those who knew him will all agree.

Geschke met Warnock when he recruited him as chief scientist at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). They were both mathematicians by training. Geschke had taught math at Ohio’s John Carrol University prior to completing a PhD at Carnegie Mellon University in computer science. Alongside Bill Wulf, he developed global compiler optimizations and authored The Design of an Optimizing Compiler.

At Xerox, Geschke and Warnock developed a page description language called "Interpress".

Xerox didn't share their excitement about the project, so the pair left to form their own company. That company, Adobe, was founded in Warnock’s garage in 1982 and named after the creek behind the house, Adobe Creek.

The business partners dodged early buyout offers from the likes of Steve Jobs and others, raised $2.5m with the help of Warnock’s thesis advisor to build their business and set about turning Interpress into what became PostScript.

PostScript allowed documents compiled on a computer to be viewed exactly as they would appear in print, with rendering digital typefaces a key innovation. The technology was built into printers and facilitated the desktop publishing boom of the 80s. Prior to this, users were forced to view their work in text-only format until they printed or hit print preview. Postscript inspired many clones. At one time, according to Geschke, there were over 75 of them.

Technically, Geschke was just continuing the family business: his father and grandfather were letterpress photo engravers.

Adobe was originally a business targeted at OEMs like Apple, as Adobe felt that baking PostScript into printers was its best bet. Products for end-users were not the plan until Geschke and the team realised Adobe needed more products to feed their retail channel's sales force. In a 2008 interview, he referred to this as a "come to Jesus moment."

Adobe Illustrator was another product to emerge from Interpress, thanks to Warnock’s wife, a graphic designer who just wanted a graphics package that would work better on Apple's early LaserWriter laser printer.

Acrobat emerged in 1993 and a basic Reader version was eventually given out for free. The PDF format it offered became ubiquitous.

Geschke was associated with Adobe from 1982 until his death, serving as CEO from 1986 until 1994, then transitioning to president, then board chair, then member of the board and ultimately emeritus board member.

He also survived a kidnapping after being taken at gunpoint in 1992 by two men and kept in chains for four days. The FBI found the assailants when Geschke’s daughter dropped off US$650,000 ransom. He was released unharmed.

Geschke leaves a wife, Nan, whom he met at a religious conference on social action in 1961, three children and seven grandchildren.

Adobe reported US$3.91bn revenue in Q1 2021, representing 26 percent year-on-year growth. ®

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