John Warnock, inventor of the PDF, dies aged 82 (2023)



Supported by


As the founder of Adobe Systems, he oversaw the development of software and systems that made modern personal computers possible.

John Warnock, inventor of the PDF, dies aged 82 (1)

ByClay Risen

John Warnock, a founder of Adobe Systems whose innovations in computer graphics, including the ubiquitous PDF, enabled today's visually rich digital experiences, died Aug. 19 at his home in Los Altos, California. He was 82.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, Adobe, which Dr. Warnock started with in 1982Chuck Geschke, said in a statement.

Until Dr. Warnock and Adobe came along, desktop printing was a cumbersome, expensive and unsatisfactory endeavor. Users relied on either a garish dot-matrix printer with its pixelated text or a specialized typesetter that could cost $10,000 and take up most of a room.

Dr. Warnock developed protocols that loaded themselves into desktop printers and reproduced exactly what a computer sent them. Adobe's first such protocol, PostScript, went into Apple's revolutionary LaserWriter, released in 1985, and within a few years it was the industry standard.

PostScript, licensed to hundreds of software and hardware companies, helped make Adobe rich. But the company was largely unknown to the public until 1993, when it released Acrobat, a program designed to render and read files in what it called a Portable Document Format, or PDF.

The PDF file was the result of Dr. Warnock's ongoing obsession since graduate school: finding a way to ensure that graphics displayed on one computer—whether words or images—looked exactly the same on another computer or on a page from a printer, regardless of manufacturer .

"It had been a holy grail in computer science to figure out how to communicate documents," he saida 2019 interview with Oxford University.

Acrobat and the PDF didn't catch on immediately, even after Adobe made its Acrobat Reader free to download. The company's board wanted to retire them, but Dr. Warnock persisted.

"I think the tipping point is if I can go to General Motors and say, 'I can deliver your information faster and cheaper than you can on paper,'"toldThe New York Times in 1991. "You're talking about tens of millions of dollars in savings."

The PDF eventually became the standard as the easy sharing of crisp, accurate documents across computer systems made the long-anticipated paperless office a reality.

Although Adobe is best known for the PDF, it owes its dominance in the software industry to an entire suite of design programs that Dr. Warnock has championed over the years, including InDesign, Photoshop and Illustrator.

Together, these programs helped make the modern personal computing experience what it is, turning what had been a soup of obscure commands and monochromatic images into an engaging aesthetic experience.

"Making the computer a machine that we can use to produce visual and print culture, that was not preordained," said David Brock, director of curatorial affairs at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, in a telephone interview. "That's where he was really instrumental."


John Edward Warnock was born on October 6, 1940 in Holladay, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City. His father, Clarence, was a lawyer; his mother, Dorothy (Van Dyke) Warnock, was a homemaker.

John was an admittedly average high school student who managed to flunk ninth grade algebra. Nevertheless, he studied mathematics at the University of Utah, receiving his bachelor's degree in 1961 and a master's degree in the same subject in 1964.

He initially had no plans to go into technology. But a grueling post-graduate summer job spent assembling tires persuaded him to apply to IBM, which was recruiting mathematicians.

He returned to Utah to pursue a doctorate in mathematics, but after a few years switched to electrical engineering, which at the time included computer science. The university had recently received a huge influx of money and resources from the Department of Defense to work on computer graphics, a field that had captured his interest.

He was particularly fascinated by the question of how to reproduce a three-dimensional image in two dimensions. The result wasWarnock algoritme, a major step forward in computer graphics and the basis for some of his later work at Adobe.

He married Marva Mullins in 1965. She survives him, as does his daughter, Alyssa; his sons, Christopher and Jeffrey; and four grandchildren.

Dr. Warnock received his doctorate in 1969 and then moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to work for a company founded by two of his mentors in Utah,David C. Evansand Ivan Sutherland. After they asked him to move to the company's Salt Lake City office, he decided to stay in California instead and went to work for Xerox, whose Palo Alto Research Center was then pioneering the first personal computers.

There he met Dr. Geschke, and the two became fast friends. Dr. Warnock spent years working on how to get printers to reproduce an image from a computer screen, a seemingly easy problem that had baffled computer scientists for years. (Dr. Geschke died in 2021.)

But when he presented his solution, InterPress, to his bosses, they weren't interested in releasing it to the public. He and Dr. Geschke, who had worked on the project, was amazed.

"I walked into his office and I said, 'We can live in the world's biggest sandbox for the rest of our lives, or we can do something about it,'" said Dr. Warnock in a 2018 interview with the Computer History Museum.

They both resigned, and in late 1982 they founded Adobe Systems, named after a stream near Dr. Warnock's home. By 2023, it had a market capitalization of $235 billion, making it one of the largest information technology companies in the world.


In 2009, President Barack Obama presented the National Medal of Technology and Innovation to both Dr. Warnock and Dr. Geschke.

Dr. Warnock and Dr. The Geschkes, who ran the company as equals, were rare exceptions among the big egos and eccentric zillionaires of Silicon Valley: avuncular and academic, they built an aggressively competitive company while consistently ranking high on lists of the best places to work.

Despite its size, Adobe was often cast as David versus much larger Goliaths, most often Microsoft - which, unlike Apple, repeatedly rejected Dr. Warnock's pleas for cooperation and instead tried to beat Adobe with its own protocols and programs. None of them worked.

Dr. Warnock, who had 20 patents to his name, stepped down as CEO in 2001 but remained on Adobe's board.

"Being the C.E.O. of a $1 billion-plus company is not all it's cracked up to be," he said in a 2010 interview with the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. is the invention process. I enjoy figuring out how to do things other people don't know how to do."

Clay Risenis an obituary reporter for The Times. Previously, he was senior editor at Politiken's desk and deputy editor at Opinionsbordet. He is most recently the author of "American Rye: A Guide to the Nation's Original Spirit." More about Clay Risen

A version of this article appears on tap, Section


, Side


of the New York edition

with the headline:

John Warnock, Adobe co-founder who invented PDF, dies aged 82.Order reprints|Today's paper|Subscribe




Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Gregorio Kreiger

Last Updated: 01/09/2024

Views: 6416

Rating: 4.7 / 5 (57 voted)

Reviews: 88% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Gregorio Kreiger

Birthday: 1994-12-18

Address: 89212 Tracey Ramp, Sunside, MT 08453-0951

Phone: +9014805370218

Job: Customer Designer

Hobby: Mountain biking, Orienteering, Hiking, Sewing, Backpacking, Mushroom hunting, Backpacking

Introduction: My name is Gregorio Kreiger, I am a tender, brainy, enthusiastic, combative, agreeable, gentle, gentle person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.