Here’s the story of a ninth grader who failed algebra and later worked in a tire store. His specialty was the retreading machine: grind off the old tread, glop on the adhesive, align new tread on tire, seal the new tread. Repeat. Surely, this experience helped shape his later life, but it was the mediocrity of the occupation that eventually forced him to earn a degree in mathematics and send a resume to IBM. It was 1965 and IBM needed to train a few bright kids to function as electrical engineers.
He later worked with the U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) in 1968 where he began to work on ideas for a computer language that would allow computers and printers to talk to each other. In the late 1970s was a principal scientist at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), in California. Working on interactive computer graphics projects that would shape the way computers evolved over the next three decades.
At the time, it was virtually impossible for a computer to render a smooth, aesthetically pleasing typeface or picture, let alone send the image to a printer. He helped develop InterPress, a printing protocol that allowed computers and printers to communicate. He tried to convince Xerox executives that the system would be the wave of the future. Xerox wanted to make it a proprietary form, while the team believed InterPress would be better put to use freely in the marketplace, where it could become standard on its own.
After two years he left to co-found Adobe Systems in 1982 along with Charles Geschke. John Warnock and he established the company to develop and sell the PostScript page description, the language that is used to render typography to this day. If you are looking at a font today it was generated with Postscript, a compact code that tells an imaging device how to proceed in a path from one point to another, and how to fill shapes once these paths are closed.
In 1991, Warnock wrote a research paper about a program he dubbed Camelot. The paper outlined an early version of what would later become the Portable Document Format, or PDF. For the first time, an electronic version of a document could be searched, reviewed, and sent to another user. It allows legal or business documents to be easily swapped between computers, and the PDF format has revolutionized the flow of paper documents between users. Other revolutionary products followed at Adobe, including Photoshop, which has become an industry standard for graphic design.
Somehow, I believe John Warnock would not have created such innovative ideas or founded Adobe Systems if he had never existed as an average student in the Salt Lake City suburb of Holladay, Utah. A big part of what seems to have driven his achievements is the notion that everyone is able to freely use his ideas, to exchange a PDF or create an image to be printed from a computer. In many ways, it is his ability to understand and adapt that has contributed to his success.