russell kirsh inventor

Russell Kirsch, inventor of the pixel, dies age 91

Image credit: wikicommons

The inventor of the pixel and developer of the first digital image scanner Russell Kirsch has died at the age of 91.

Born in Manhattan in 1929, Kirsch studied at Harvard University in 1952 and later the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

With his research group, he went on to develop a digital image scanner in 1957 that could “trace variations of intensity over the surfaces of photographs”.

They used a rotating drum and a photomultiplier to sense reflections from a small image mounted on the drum.

One of the first photographs scanned was a picture of Kirsch's three-month-old son, which was captured as just 30,976 pixels, a 176 × 176 array, in an area 5 cm × 5 cm. Modern digital cameras typically capture millions of pixels per image.

The bit depth was only one bit per pixel, stark black and white with no intermediate shades of grey, but by combining several scans made using different scanning thresholds, grayscale information could also be acquired.

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 Wired 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.

He suffered from dementia in the time leading up to his death and is survived by his wife of 65 years, Joan; by children Walden, Peter, Lindsey and Kara; and by four grandchildren.

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