Computer graphics pioneer John Warnock dies at 82

Pioneer of hidden-line removal, co-inventor of Postscript and PDF, author of Illustrator, and charitable benefactor

Obit As the creator or co-creator of much of the technology that made Apple's Macintosh and modern computer graphics in general a success, John Warnock's impact is beyond reckoning.

Warnock and Chuck Geschke co-created the Postcript page-description language, and in Warnock's garage in 1982, they started Adobe Systems to turn it into a product. Dr Geschke died in 2021, and in our obituary for him we discussed Postscript's significance.

Steve Jobs attempted to buy Adobe – named after the creek at the back of Warnock's garage – for five million dollars the year it was founded. Warnock and Geschke refused, but sold him 19 percent of the company and licensed their software to Apple, which used it in the Apple LaserWriter – arguably the product which saved the Macintosh. Postscript was very much not Warnock's only gift to posterity, though.

John Warnock was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1940, and obtained all three of his degrees (bachelor's, master's, and doctorate) from the University of Utah. He also met his future wife, graphic designer Marva (née Mullins), while studying at the university.

The University of Utah was a pivotal institution in the early days of computer graphics. Its head of Computer Science, David Evans, recruited interactive graphics pioneer Ivan Sutherland; the duo went on to found Evans & Sutherland. (Other notable alumni are Jim Clark, who founded Silicon Graphics, and Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar.)

As described in chapter 11 of Robert X Cringely's Accidental Empires, while still a student there, the young Warnock's profound insight into one of the biggest problems in the early days of computer graphics – hidden-line removal – led directly to his PhD.

His 1969 doctoral thesis, "A Hidden Surface Algorithm for Computer Generated Halftone Pictures," described what is now known as the Warnock Algorithm, and in his words [PDF], he has "the dubious distinction of having written the shortest doctoral thesis in University of Utah history." It is a mere 32 pages long [PDF], and notably contains no computer code whatsoever.

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As he said in a 1986 interview:

I've always liked mathematics; problem solving has always been fun. My saving grace in life is that I was not introduced to computers at an early age. […]

I went through the university, all the way to the master's level, so I got a good, solid liberal education. I believe it's really important to have a very solid foundation in mathematics, English, and the basic sciences. Then, when you become a graduate student, it's okay to learn as much as you can about computers.

If you really want to be successful, being acculturated to the rest of the society and then going into computers is a much more reasonable way to approach the problem.

Among other former students, Evans & Sutherland hired the young John Warnock. He later left for a job at Xerox PARC in 1978, where he worked for Chuck Geschke. Together, they worked on a page-description language called Interpress, as described in this 1983 Usenet post. Much as was the case with the Xerox Alto, Warnock and Geschke were unable to persuade Xerox management of the commercial potential of their work, so they left to start their own company.

Marva Warnock was an important influence on and contributor to other areas of his work, as well. She designed both the original Adobe logo and its custom typeface; its initial letter is still the logo today. The font editor program that John wrote to help automate some of the repetitive tasks in this work was later brought to market as Adobe Illustrator. A few years later, his 1991 project, Camelot [PDF], became the Portable Document Format – PDF itself.

In 2003, John and Marva gave 200,000 Adobe shares to the University of Utah. The John E and Marva M Warnock Building, which houses the engineering and computer science departments, is named after them. They also endowed chairs in science, mathematics and fine arts.

He retired as Adobe's CEO in 2001, and co-chaired its board with Geschke until 2017. He received many awards for his work, both on his own and with Geschke, including from the Association for Computing Machinery, the Edwin H Land medal, the Bodley Medal, the Lovelace Medal, the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, and the Marconi Prize. Warnock was a keen skier, and after they retired, he and Marva ran the Blue Boar Inn in Midway, near the ski resorts of Park City and Deer Valley.

Warnock died on August 19, aged 82, surrounded by his family. He leaves behind Marva and three children.

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