Software visionaryChuck Geschke

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With a master’s degree in mathematics, Geschke taught math at John Carroll University starting in 1963. But then he got interested in computers, and once completing a Ph.D in computer science at Carnegie Mellon University in 1972, he quickly landed a position at Xerox’s famed Palo Alto Research Center. He built a mainframe computer, worked on programming languages, and developed tools for the Xerox Star workstation, the first personal computer to include a graphical user interface (and a mouse to control it). In 1978 Geschke started the Imaging Sciences Laboratory at PARC to conduct research in graphics, optics, and image processing. To help, he hired John Warnock as Chief Scientist, “the best hiring decision I ever made,” Geschke said. The men realized that graphically based computers presented a significant challenge: how to render their output the same way on other computers and on the printed page. Together they worked on a new “page description language” that would be more universal: they called it Interpress. Xerox was not interested in the idea, so in 1978 Geschke and Warnock quit Xerox and started their own company in Warnock’s garage. It was named after the creek that ran behind the house: Adobe. Warnock served as CEO; Geschke as COO, and later President.

Geschke in 1989 (Photo: Adobe Systems)

As they worked on their page description language, it evolved into Postscript. Another Silicon Valley executive came and toured their progress: he offered to buy the company because what they were developing would go perfectly with a new graphically based computer he was developing: Apple’s Macintosh. They turned Steve Jobs down, but the Mac ran Adobe’s software to output its work on the company’s new laser printer — and Jobs still bought 19.9 percent of Adobe’s stock. In 1993, Adobe’s work led to a file standard that would allow documents to have the same “look” no matter what other computers opened it. They called it the “Portable Document Format” — or PDF. The format has grown dramatically over the years, but modern PDF readers can still correctly render early PDF files. In 1992 Geschke was abducted at gunpoint from the Adobe parking lot when he arrived for work. The FBI rescued him from his captors four days later, and recovered the $650,000 ransom they had demanded.

Both co-founders retired from Adobe in 2000, but stayed on as board members. Geschke turned most of his attention to giving away his millions. In 2002, Geschke was made a fellow of the Computer History Museum for “his accomplishments in the commercialization of desktop publishing with John Warnock and for innovations in scalable type, computer graphics and printing.” Both men won the 2008 National Medal of Technology and Innovation, presented by President Barack Obama. In 2010 the Marconi Society co-awarded Geschke and Warnock the Marconi Prize. Through it all he remained consciously humble: “He was very proud of his success, of course,” says his widow, Nan Geschke, “but he was very circumspect about how much he had to do with that. He always called himself the luckiest man in the world.” Warnock is still alive, and 80 years old. Charles Matthew “Chuck” Geschke died April 16. He was 81.

From This is True for 18 April 2021