PostScript Source Code Made Public After 40 Years of Its Creation

Printing

The story of PostScript “is a story about profound changes in human literacy,” argues Silicon Valley’s Computer History Museum, “as well as a story of trade secrets within source code.” And 40 years after it’s creation…The Computer History Museum is excited to publicly release, for the first time. 

Adobe’s ground-breaking PostScript technology is now available to the public for the first time, thanks to the Computer History Museum (CHM)! The museum has been granted the right to redistribute it, and Adobe founder John Warnock was even directly involved in the publication. PostScript is widely recognized as the first successful implementation of digital printing technology, with PDF being its widely-used successor today. 

Adobe was founded by the inform artists Charles Geschke and John Warnock. Their goal, according to CHM: “Every computer could connect to printers and typesetters via a common language to print words and images with the highest accuracy.” Together with a team of other programmers, Adobe finally developed the programming language PostScript including interpreter. The software was first released in 1984. 

Revolutionary technology 

PostScript’s capabilities were considered revolutionary at the time of publication: “By treating everything that is to be printed equally in a common mathematical description, PostScript grants capabilities that are not offered anywhere else. Text and images can be scaled, rotated and moved as desired,” as the CHM writes. 

They based the technology on vector graphics – purely mathematical descriptions of shapes that make use of Bezier curves, and font hinting helps ensure that fonts are displayed well across different resolutions. Adobe held its font hinting implementation as a trade secret for many years and also bundled fonts with its PostScript system. 

The beginnings of PostScript 

In the early 1980s, Adobe developed PostScript, a page description language which was the result of more than a decade worth of work by John Warnock. Originally, Warnock worked on the concept at Evans & Sutherland and then for Charles Geschke at the Palo Alto Research Center of Xerox. When Warnock saw no prospects for Xerox to commercialize the PostScript technology, he and Geschke founded Adobe Systems Inc. in 1982. Afterwards, a programming team created the PostScript language and interpreter, which was released as a product in 1984. 

Impressed by the new technology, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs approached Adobe to use PostScript for their laser printers, which were first developed at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. Apple then launched the LaserWriter printer unit with pre-installed PostScript in 1985, contributing to the desktop printing industry’s surge. 

The PostScript technology was later used as the basis for Portable Document Format (PDF). PDF was designed to make document exchange between devices easier, and PostScript uses a page description language based on vector graphics. This language involves the use of Bezier curves and font hinting, to create a mathematical description of shapes. 

Art of Code 

The “Art of Code”, a year-long exploration and celebration of the art behind the breakthrough technology kicked off with the September celebration of the 50th anniversary of Smalltalk. CHM has scheduled a remarkable series of historical source code releases throughout the year to encourage programmers, developers, coders, and growing students of code.  

And PostScript’s source code release was the first installment in this series followed by Apple Lisa Computer which is slated to be released in January 2023. The CHM aims to bring the source of these innovative softwares of yesteryears to the public domain as to how programmers have developed solutions that underpin the software that has changed our world. 

In conclusion 

The advancements in digital printing have been remarkable to say the least since PostScript was first developed and far exceeded anything envisioned by Adobe’s cofounders. Now, almost all printing is done with computers and in many places, computers have replaced writing by hand. As Doug Brotz puts it, PostScript “democratized the print world.”  With the success of PDFs and the trillions created each year, this technology has become a global standard. 

Post script 

The version of the PostScript source code released to the public by the Computer History Museum is a very early version, dating to late February 1984. While this version does contain an early version of the “font hinting” procedures later kept as a trade secret, these approaches were completely rewritten, expanded, and refined by Bill Paxton in subsequent months. These changes were critical to the success of PostScript as it fully came to market. 

 
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