Computer scientist Russell A. Kirsch, the inventor of pixels and an undisputed pioneer in digital imaging, died Tuesday at his home in Portland from complications arising from a form of Alzheimer’s disease. He was 91 years old.
Russell Kirsch may not be a name you immediately recognize, but his contribution to computer science enabled digital imaging.
Kirsch was born on June 20, 1929 in New York to immigrant parents from Russia and Hungary and attended Bronx High School, then NYU, Harvard and eventually MIT. In 1951, he joined the National Bureau of Standards, where he worked for 50 years helping to invent the pixel and create the first digital photograph.
This 172 x 172 pixel image of his son Walden – created in 1957 – is now iconic and was named one of Life the magazine’s “100 photographs that changed the world” in 2003.
As DPReview points out, Kirsch never stopped improving his most famous invention, even after he retired in 2001. In a 2010 interview with WIRED, he outlined his attempts to create a system that uses “variably shaped pixels” instead of the squares that have dominated digital imaging since he invented them.
In that interview, he calls squares “the logical thing to do,” but regrets that the decision, “was something very foolish that everyone in the world has suffered from since.”
So in the mature old age of 81, he started working on a masking system that creates 6 x 6 pixel areas and then intelligently divides those areas into the two sections that have the most contrast before re-merging the pixels on each side of the nail. The idea never got ahead, but he explains the technology and its benefits in detail in the video below:
But while the incredible accolades described above definitely give you a feel for the Russell Kirsch engineer, the best personal photo of Kirsch probably comes from a 2012 blog post by a man named Joel Runyon who came across Kirsch at a coffee shop in Portland.
After revealing that Runyon’s computer and the images on it probably would not exist – or would not exist as they are – without Kirsch’s contribution to technology and computer science, the 83-year-old Kirsch shared the following words:
I guess I always thought that nothing is withheld from us what we have imagined to do. Most people think the opposite – that all things are withheld from them as they intend to do, and they end up doing something.
Sir. Kirsch may be gone, but his legacy will live on on every single one of the approx. 3.8 billion photos that are currently being taken every single day. May he rest in peace.
(via Oregon Live)
Photo Credits: Header image created using photo by Joel Runyon, CC-BY-3.0.