Inventor of the Pixel and First Person to Scan a Digital Photo Dies at 91

Russell Kirsch, a pioneering computer scientist credited with inventing the pixel and developing the first digital image scanner, has died at the age of 91.

Kirsch scanned a photograph of his infant son Walden in 1957, producing the first digital image decades before other early developments in digital photography began to take shape. He died Tuesday at his home in Portland, Oregon, according to The Oregonian.

"My dad, he was a super curious guy, always asking questions," Walden Kirsch told the paper. "He was an iconoclast. When people said you can't go there or you can't do that, he did."

The elder Kirsch was born in New York City in 1929 to Jewish immigrants from Russia and Hungary. After graduating from the Bronx High School of Science in 1946, he attended college at New York University, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Kirsch made the digital imaging breakthrough six years into his 50-year career while working in Washington, D.C. for the National Bureau of Standards, which is now known as the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Pixels
This close-up image representing pixels on a screen is far more colorful than the pixels created when the first digital image was scanned in 1957. Salomonus_/Getty

Kirsch and his colleagues worked on a series of experiments, largely involving artificial intelligence, using the Standards Electronic Automatic Computer, the country's first fully operational electronic computer. The computer weighed approximately 3,000 pounds and was able to process only a tiny fraction of even the most rudimentary of today's devices.

A 2-by-2 inch photograph of Kirsch's son was scanned using a rotating drum that detected reflections of the photograph and converted them into binary code to be processed by the computer. The resulting digital grayscale image was only 176 by 176 pixels, tiny by today's standards, while clearly remaining a recognizable reproduction of the original picture.

This first-ever digital photo was created by Russell Kirsch in 1957. #WorldPhotoDay pic.twitter.com/V0SpUXap6I

— BBC Culture (@BBC_Culture) August 20, 2014

Kirsch later expressed regrets that pixels were square because they can cause distorted images, especially at lower resolutions.

"Squares was the logical thing to do," Kirsch told Wired 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."

The first scanned image was key step in the development of a host of other significant imaging technologies that are crucial to the modern world, like bar code scanners, satellite imagery and medical imaging.

Digital photography took decades to develop further and become widely adopted because even low-quality digital images required far more storage space than computers at the time could manage, and what they could manage was far too expensive.

In 2001, Kirsch retired to Oregon, according to The Oregonian. For several years he had been ill with dementia caused by a rare brain disorder, although he had reportedly remained active and was considered a regular at a local bakery.

Kirsch is survived by Joan, his wife of 65 years, and children Walden, Peter, Kara and Lindsay, along with four grandchildren.