Charles ‘Chuck’ Geschke, co-founder of Adobe and inventor of the PDF, dies at 81

Charles ‘Chuck’ Geschke, who co-founded Adobe, a graphics and software publishing company, with John Warnock in 1982, died this past Friday at age 81 of cancer. Notably he was instrumental in developing the Portable Document Format technology, better known as PDFs.

“This is a huge loss for the entire Adobe community and the technology industry, for whom he has been a guide and hero for decades,” Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen wrote in an email to the company’s employees.

Geschke was born on September 11, 1939. He grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and was raised by his mother, a paralegal, and father – a photo engraver who produced the metal plates that clamped onto presses to produce images for books, magazines and newspapers. Adobe’s products made the technology his father used obsolete.

He went on to attend Xavier University, studied liberal arts for most of his tenure, and even contemplated joining the priesthood. Instead, he pursued a Masters in Mathematics and accidentally stumbled upon computer programming in the 1960s, as a math teacher at John Carroll University, through one of his former students.

The student, employed at a software company, taught Geschke how to write simple programs. Geschke was hooked and enrolled in a doctoral program at what is now Carnegie Mellon University. He graduated with a Ph.D. in Computer Science in 1973. He joined the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) research department and was known as an ‘ARPA brat’ – the type of person that defined Silicon Valley’s startup culture in the 70s and 80s.

Xerox would hire him next to work in their Palo Alto Research Center. It was there he met his future Adobe co-founder, and best friend, John Warnock. When Xerox executives informed the two men that they needed seven years to launch a new product, they were put off by the lengthy time frame. They decided that in order to move at a faster pace, they’d need to start their own company.

Funded by venture capital firm Hambrecht & Quist, Adobe launched in 1982. Apple Computer was one of their first customers, using Adobe’s PostScript language to power their LaserWriter Printers. Apple would eventually team up with Microsoft and attempt to challenge Adobe in desktop publishing, but Adobe triumphed in what is known as ‘the font wars.’

He wanted to surround himself with smarter people and referred to that as ‘a larger pool.’

Geschke had the reputation for being a kind and humble man. He wanted to surround himself with smarter people and referred to that as ‘a larger pool.’ At age 52, he was kidnapped at gunpoint while arriving at Adobe for work. Held for four days in Hollister, California, the FBI found and rescued him.

Besides PostScript and the PDF, Adobe has developed leading software used by creatives, to this day, including Photoshop, Illustrator, Acrobat and Premiere Pro. Former president Barack Obama awarded Warnock and Geschke with the National Medal of Technology in 2009. You can read his biography on Adobe’s website.

Geschke is survived by his wife, Nancy ‘Nan,’ age 78, three children and seven grandchildren.