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Charles M. Geschke (1939-2021)

By Simson Garfinkel, Eugene H. Spafford

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 64 No. 7, Page 22
10.1145/3467481

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Charles ("Chuck") M. Geschke helped create the modern world of computing, where beautiful typography and expressive, artistic graphics are as integral to most users' experience as numbers and text.

Geschke earned an A.B. in classics and a master's in mathematics, both at Xavier University. He then enrolled in the computer science program at Carnegie Mellon University, where he earned his doctorate in 1972 under the supervision of William Wulf.

After graduating, Geschke went to work at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), the storied lab that invented the dominant desktop computing paradigm of the past three decades: high-performance single-user desktop computers with bitmap displays that display information in "windows," connected by a local area network, printing documents on a laser printer. Geschke was tasked with developing an imaging research group at PARC.

In 1978, Geschke hired John Warnock, who had previously worked at Evans & Sutherland, a company that developed computer graphics displays. The two decided that many of the implementation details for controlling the laser printer should be hidden from programmers by using a high-level "page description language" that specified fonts, typography, and graphics. They named their creation Interpress.


"He was highly respected by all employees and was instrumental in building a strong, high-growth company."—JOHN WARNOCK, WHO COFOUNDED ADOBE, INC. WITH CHUCK GESCHKE IN 1982.


Xerox declined to commercialize Interpress, so Geschke and Warnock left in 1982 to found Adobe, where they created an improved language they named PostScript. Apple Computer invested in the company and became their first customer. Apple put PostScript at the center of its Apple LaserWriter, which created the phenomena of desktop publishing soon after its launch in 1985.

But Adobe was no one-hit-wonder; PostScript was the first of a series of industry-standard products, including PhotoShop, Illustrator, and Acrobat.

"Chuck and I built the company together and both were on the Adobe Board until he retired in 2019," recalls Warnock. "He was highly respected by all employees and was instrumental in building a strong high-growth company."

Geschke was Adobe's chief operating officer from 1986 until 1994, president from 1989 until his retirement in April 2000, and co-chair of Adobe's board (with Warnock) from 1997 until 2017. He remained on the board until April 2020.

For the invention of PostScript, Geschke shared the 1989 ACM Software System Award with Douglas K. Brotz, William H. Paxton, Edward A. Taft, and Warnock. He was elevated to ACM Fellow in 1999. Geschke was also a Fellow of the Computer History Museum, a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and was elected to the National Academy of Engineering. Together with Warnock, Geschke was awarded the 2006 David Packard Medal of Achievement by the California Technology Council, the 2008 National Medal of Technology and Innovation by President Barack Obama, the IEEE Computer Society's 2008 Computer Entrepreneur Award, and the 2010 Marconi Prize.

"Chuck and I never had an argument over the 43 years we had known each other," Warnock said. "I will always miss him."

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Authors

Simson Garfinkel is a part-time faculty member at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., USA. He is an ACM Fellow.

Eugene H. Spafford is a professor of computer science and the founder and executive director emeritus of the Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security at Purdue University, W. Lafayette, IN, USA. He is an ACM Fellow.


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