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Russell Kirsch, Inventor of The Square Pixel, Has Passed Away

Russell Kirsch, the inventor of the square pixel and the person who scanned the first digital image, has passed away at the age 91. He died on 11 August at his home in Portland, Oregon.

Born in New York to Russian and Hungarian Jewish immigrants in 1929, Kirsch attended the Bronx High School of Science and New York University, MIT. Kirsch later became a scientist at the National Bureau of Standards, now known as the National Institute of Science and Technology. He worked there for 50 years. As Wired noted, working there in the 1950s meant that he was working with “the only programmable computer in the United States” - the SEAC.

In 1957, Kirsch created the world’s first digital image, which was of his then-baby son, Walden Kirsch. According to TechCrunch, his research group made use of “‘a rotating drum and a photomultiplier to sense reflections from a small image mounted on the drum’” to pull it off. “In lieu of grid-based sampling of the image, a mask was placed on it pierced at intervals to create what amounted to pixels, though that term would not be used for years to come,” wrote TechCrunch.
Image credit: Oregonlive

The resulting image “was 176 by 176 pixels, these pixels being just one binary digit, black and white,” Kirsch said in an archived NPR broadcast. “But things, of course, have improved.” The image’s size was limited by the SEAC’s memory capacity, Wired wrote. Kirsch was also head of the Artificial Intelligence Group in the late 1960s. His invention lead to the digital photography and computer image processing that we know of today, as well as CAT scans, satellite imaging, and more.

10 years ago, Kirsch sought to improve on the square pixels he invented. He told Wired, “Squares was the logical thing to do. 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.” He wrote a program that transformed the squares of a digital image into what Wired described as a “smoother picture made of variably shaped pixels”, and used it on a more recent picture of Walden. “Finally, at my advanced age of 81, I decided that instead of just complaining about what I did, I ought to do something about it,” Kirsch said.

Kirsch is survived by his wife, four children, and four grandchildren. You can read his obituary here.

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