Russell Kirsch scanned an image of his infant son into the world's first digital scanner in 1957. Image by AP PHOTO

Technology

Pixel inventor Russell Kirsch dead at 91

2020-08-15 08:56:49

Russell Kirsch, a computer scientist credited with inventing the pixel and scanning the world’s first digital photograph, has died aged 91 at his home in Portland, Oregon.

Pixels, the digital dots used to display photos, video and more on phone and computer screens, were not an obvious innovation in 1957, when Kirsch created a small black-and-white digital image of his son, Walden, as an infant. That was among the first images ever scanned into a computer, using a device created by his research team at the US National Bureau of Standards.

This work “laid the foundations for satellite imagery, CT scans, virtual reality and Facebook”, said a 2010 Science News article about Kirsch. That first square image measured a mere 176 pixels on a side – just shy of 31,000 pixels in total. Today, the digital camera on the iPhone 11 can capture about 12 million pixels per image.

Though computers have become exponentially more powerful, science has been coming to terms with the fact that Kirsch made his pixels square, meaning image elements can look blocky, clunky or jagged.

“Squares was the logical thing to do,” Kirsch said. “Of course, the logical thing was not the only possibility but we used squares. It was something very foolish that everyone in the world has been suffering from ever since.”

Kirsch later developed a method to smooth out images by using pixels with variable shapes instead of the squares.

Born in Manhattan, New York, in 1929, Kirsch was the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Hungary. He went to New York University, Harvard and MIT and worked for five decades as a research scientist at the US National Bureau of Standards.

Kirsch is survived by his wife of 65 years, Joan; by children Walden, Peter, Lindsey and Kara; and by four grandchildren.