Ever see a computer image blown up so large that it looks like hazy squares? You can thank Russell Kirsch for those blurred blocks. He’s the reason computers read photos as many tiny squares, called pixels. Kirsch passed away this summer—but his pixels changed how people see the world.
A pixel is a single point in a picture. It usually appears as a square. Together, many squares form a picture. Pixels are the digital blocks used to display photos and video on phone and computer screens.
Born in Manhattan in 1929, Kirsch was the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Hungary. He worked for 50 years as a research scientist at the U.S. National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institutes of Science and Technology). There Kirsch operated the first programmable computer in the United States: the Standards Electronic Automatic Computer (SEAC).
In its day, SEAC was groundbreaking. Big enough to fill a room, it performed complex mathematical functions, including calculations for the hydrogen bomb.
Although he worked on many projects during his career, Kirsch is best remembered for inventing the pixel and scanning the world’s first digital photograph.
Pixels weren’t around in 1957. That’s when Kirsch used machines built by his team to scan an image of his infant son, Walden. The baby picture was among the first images ever scanned into a computer. The team successfully turned a photograph into something SEAC could reproduce.
Kirsch’s work on pixels “laid the foundations for satellite imagery, CT scans, virtual reality, and Facebook,” according to a 2010 Science News article. The picture of Baby Walden became one of Life magazine’s 100 Photographs that Changed the World.
That first image measured only 176 pixels per side (about two inches). There were fewer than 31,000 pixels total. For comparison, the camera on the iPhone 11 can capture about 12 million pixels per image!
Computers have come a long way. But science still struggles with Kirsch’s square pixels. The shape means that images can look jagged—at least not as smooth as real life.
“Squares was the logical thing to do,” Kirsch told Science News. “Of course, the logical thing was not the only possibility. . . . It was something very foolish that everyone in the world has been suffering from ever since.”
Kirsch strove his whole career to replicate the complex processes of the human mind—a mind God created using dust and breath—on computer.
Ten years ago, at age 81, he had an idea to “fix” the square pixel problem. He considered using variable shapes instead of squares. Ever the scientist, Kirsch explained that his research focus was “not what I have done but what I hope somebody else is going to do soon.”