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It seems from all the articles I read on the topic that Knuth actually designed the font from ground up. He's a celebrated computer scientist, but was he also a digital calligraphy genius? That's a little astonishing to my mind.

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AFAIR he was inspired by other fonts. At the EuroTeX conference in 2005 there was a panel with Knuth and Herman Zapf. Knuth was asked if he regretted something in the design of CM. He wasn't as happy with the design of the $. –  daleif Jun 25 at 8:10
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Here is a write up from that panel tug.org/TUGboat/tb27-0/knuthzapf.pdf –  daleif Jun 25 at 8:13
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The design of Computer Modern was inspired by Monotype Modern 8A. –  egreg Jun 25 at 8:27
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Considering he built a whole typesetting system, it doesn't seem all that far-fetched to create a font. :) –  cHao Jun 25 at 15:46
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@PhilPerry - I'm pretty sure that lawsuits over font-related copyright or design patent infringements weren't an issue in the late 70s and early 80s. In addition, I don't think it's right to blame a font for looking distinctive; instead, blame the people who use that font! Of course, CM was for many years the only font family that had full math support, and thus CM had to be employed for documents containing mathy material whether or not people cared for the font. Font designers simply never warmed to Metafont, and it's taken way too long to get new font families that have full math support. –  Mico Jun 26 at 5:18

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up vote 30 down vote accepted

"Design" is a loaded term.

Knuth knowingly and intentionally copied the metal font Monotype Modern 8A, which was the font used to set the first edition of volumes 1-3 of The Art of Computer Programming.

He described the procedure he started with in his lecture on receiving the Kyoto Prize -- see especially page 6, near the top. (A google search for "knuth kyoto prize lecture" turns up some other interesting links as well.)

This is really a transcript of the text, not a "finished" article. The figures are collected at the end rather than inserted where they are referenced. This lecture is also the leadoff item in Knuth's book *Digital Typography" (which is recommended reading in any event), where it is polished for publication, and the illustrations appear in context. (A discount for this book is available when ordered through the TUG bookstore.)

The important features of Computer Modern / Monotype Modern 8A are reflected in the design of METAFONT -- and that is truly a Knuth design.

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I was pleased to find that the transcript you linked to does include the figures! They are all combined at the end of the document. –  Alan Shutko Jun 25 at 15:21
    
@AlanShutko -- oh! i didn't look far enough down in the file. i'll add that info to the answer. thanks! –  barbara beeton Jun 25 at 15:25
    
Oh, neat, a Knuth memoir! (half an hour later) +1 :) –  Ryan Reich Jun 25 at 17:43

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