Explained: Who was Charles Geschke, the person who helped develop the PDF?


Charles Geschke, Adobe’s co-founder who aided the development of the world’s most widely used file format, the Portable Document Format (PDF), died at the age of 81 in California on Friday.

The company’s CEO, Shantanu Narayen, said in a statement, “As co-founders of Adobe, Chuck and John Warnock developed groundbreaking software that has revolutionized how people create and communicate.”

Narayen added, “Chuck instilled a relentless drive for innovation in the company, resulting in some of the most transformative software inventions, including the ubiquitous PDF, Acrobat, Illustrator, Premiere Pro and Photoshop.”

Who was Charles Geschke and what did he do?

Geschke co-founded Adobe in 1982 along with Dr John Warnock and transformed the company into one of the largest companies. Warnock and Geschke started collaborating together in the 1980s, when they were working at Xerox. During this time, they figured out a solution that allowed computers to communicate complex forms like typefaces to printers.

The website of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation (awarded to Geschke in 2008) notes that Warnock and Geschke continued to improve on this solution ultimately leading to a product called PostScript. Subsequently, they used hardware and software from what was a new company at the time–Apple–and created the first desktop publishing system, which allowed the production of page designs on computers with the help of a special software. Because of this, the process of printing was transformed and became fully automated.

History of the creation of the PDF

PDF, which is one of the world’s most popular file formats, is used everyday by millions across the world to save and share documents, resumes, research papers, flight or railway tickets. But how did the PDF come to be?

In the 1990s, Warnock spearheaded what is called the “Camelot Project”. The aim was to come up with a file format that could be shared easily across different computer systems and applications.

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For instance, if a document is created on a laptop that uses Windows and is shared as a pdf with an individual who uses a Macbook, the latter can see the information and images in the document without any glitches. Before the pdf, the process of sharing documents between was not as seamless.

Warnock wrote about the project that its goal was to solve the fundamental problem that is concerned with the ability “to communicate visual material between different computer applications and systems.” In essence the people behind the project were trying to see if there was a “universal way to communicate” information electronically.

“What industries badly need is a universal way to communicate documents across a wide variety of machine configurations, operating systems and communication networks. These documents should be viewable on any display and should be printable on any modern printers. If this problem can be solved, then the fundamental way people work will change,” Warnock wrote.

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