Remembering Pixel inventor Russell Kirsch

russell kirsch inventor of the pixel

You may not realise it but you probably owe a big thank you to Russell Kirsch.

Kirsch, 91, passed away this week but he left behind a huge legacy. It was he who invented the pixel. That tiny element or dot that, combined with thousands of its fellows, creates the digital images we use and upload to our PCs and phones every day.

It was Kirsch, way back in 1957, who scanned world’s first digital photograph. 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, 2-by-2-inch 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 (now the National Institutes of Science and Technology).

Where would we be without pixels?

Kirsch’s work “laid the foundations for satellite imagery, CT scans, virtual reality and Facebook,” said a 2010 Science News article about Kirsch, subsequently republished by Wired.

Russell Kirsch holding the image of his son, Walden, that was scanned into the world’s first digital scanner in 1957
Russell Kirsch holding the image of his son, Walden, that was scanned into the world’s first digital scanner in 1957 (Jamie Francis/The Oregonian via AP, File)

That first square image, that article said, 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 roughly 12 million pixels per image.

Though computers have become exponentially more powerful and can now fit in our pockets, science has ever since been coming to terms with the fact that Kirsch made his pixels square. The square shape of the pixels meant that image elements can look blocky, clunky or jagged – just generally not as smooth as real life. There is even a word for this effect: “pixelated”.

“Squares was the logical thing to do,” Kirsch told the magazine in 2010. “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 in 1929, Kirsch was the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Hungary. He was educated at the Bronx High School of Science, New York University, Harvard and MIT and worked for five decades as a research scientist at the US National Bureau of Standards.

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