It Happened at Michigan — ‘I really disliked writing papers’

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Blame procrastination and a persistent brother for the creation of one of the world’s most popular software tools.

It was 1987, and Thomas Knoll, a doctoral student in computer vision algorithmics, was trying to write his dissertation about the processing of digital images. But he found working on a software program he’d been noodling with far more interesting, encouraged by his younger brother, John.

An image of the first version of Photoshop
The first version of Photoshop. (Image courtesy of Web Design Museum)

A dual love of photography and computers was a Knoll family trait. The brothers’ father, Glenn F. Knoll, a longtime U-M professor of nuclear engineering, was an amateur photographer with a darkroom in the basement at home. Thomas and John enjoyed experimenting with the first Apple Macs on the market.

Rather than write his thesis, Thomas Knoll was fascinated with his Macintosh Plus and tried to create ways to show grayscale images on a monochrome screen. It was a challenge from John Knoll, who was working at George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic — creator of visual wizardry for “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones,” “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” and more — and looking for new computer tools.

“My brother wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Thomas Knoll told the College of Engineering in 2016. “And I really disliked writing papers, so I procrastinated by writing this computer program.’”

He never looked back. He developed a bundle of photo editing tools (“it was actually very addictive”) and called it Display, then Photoshop. Working with his brother, Knoll sold the software to Adobe, which went on the market in 1990. Five years later, Adobe bought the rights to Photoshop, paying the Knoll brothers $34.5 million.

A photo of three men holding Academy Awards
Thomas Knoll, center, with his brother John (right) and Adobe’s Mark Hamburg (left) at the 2019 Oscars. (Photo courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences)

In 2019, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences — bestower of the Oscars — presented the Knoll brothers with a Scientific and Technical Award for their design and development of Photoshop.

Thomas Knoll never completed his dissertation.

“In retrospect, it was procrastination that spawned a technology icon — I’m not sure that’s a path I’d recommend for everyone,” Knoll wrote in 2015. “Nobody could have predicted Photoshop would influence fields as diverse as publishing, Web design, 3D printing, video games, medicine, movies and of course photography.”

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