Remembering John Warnock, 1941-2023
John Warnock, University of Utah alumnus, philanthropist, inventor and co-founder of Adobe Systems, Inc., passed away on Aug. 19, 2023. Although he was best known for his development of some of the fundamental techniques behind computer-generated images and desktop publishing that made him a luminary in the tech world, he was also a philosopher and book lover. He received a philosophy degree from the U in 1961 (along with a mathematics degree and later a master’s in mathematics and a doctorate in electrical engineering/computer science) and had a passion for literature and learning. So much so, that he dedicated much of his time to preserving some of the greatest books in the world’s libraries.
Warnock began collecting rare books in 1986, starting with the purchase of a 1570 edition of Euclid’s “Elements” from a bookstore in London. In 1995, he started a company called Octavo, which preserved the beauty of some of the greatest, oldest and most important books in history. The idea of the company was to sell CDs with high-resolution scans of books by Milton, Shakespeare, Galileo and many others.
“We scanned some of the great books from the greatest libraries in the world, as well as a lot of the books I own,” he said in a 2013 interview with the University of Utah. “The company was not successful for a number of reasons, but I had all the book files.” So, he created the website, rarebookroom.org, to showcase the scanned images and make these rare books readily available to anyone with a computer and internet access. The site features more than 400 volumes.
“John Warnock was a model for putting the humanities at the center of his work, even if that work was a matter of engineering technology,” said Hollis Robbins, dean of the College of Humanities. “The humanities – arts, culture, philosophy, history – are central and vital to who we are as a nation. He was a great humanist and a great philosophy alumnus.” Hollis noted that in 2011, Warnock was appointed by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences “to bolster teaching and research in the humanities and social sciences, fields that are critical to culture, education and to America's economic competitiveness.”
Warnock’s other passion was Native American art. He and his wife, Marva, often traveled to the Four Corners region with their three children to visit Native American sites, and the trips sparked an interest in American Indian art and culture. “We started collecting casually, maybe 10 or 12 years ago,” he said in his 2013 interview. “We think the early history of the United States is interesting, and the art produced by Native Americans is incredible.”
The Warnocks’ collection began with baskets and pots and grew to include hundreds of items, including moccasins, shirts, and beadwork, from more than two dozen Native American tribes. The collection toured the country in many exhibits, including one at the University of Utah in 2010.
Together, the Warnocks published a book in 2009 with the University of Utah Press titled, “Splendid Heritage: Perspectives on American Indian Arts.” The catalog of American Indian artifacts represents the commitment of American collectors to share the beauty and significance of hundreds of ethnographic treasures with a worldwide audience.
This catalog became a reality through the thoughtful, collaborative efforts of the Warnocks and several collectors of rare and unusual artifacts, the majority of which were produced by Plains and Eastern Woodlands cultures. Their passionate respect and attention to detail is reflected in descriptions and provenance for every artifact, presented in magnificent full-page color images and accompanied by essays from internationally recognized scholars and curators. The contributors celebrate the artifacts not merely for their singular qualities as fine art, but also for their significance in the religious and political lives of their original owners.
“We are constantly amazed by the tremendous things that alumni of the Department of Philosophy go on to accomplish in life,” said Eric Hutton, chair of the Department of Philosophy. “The work of John Warnock has made a profound impact worldwide, and we are proud to count him among the graduates of our program and sorrowed to learn of his passing."
Warnock is survived by his wife and three children.