Russell A. Kirsch

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Russell A. Kirsch
Photograph of Russell Kirsch.
Russell Kirsch.
Born 1929 (age 84–85)
Residence Portland, Oregon, United States
Education Bronx High School of Science (1946), BEE New York University (1950), SM Harvard University (1952), American University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology[1]
Occupation Computer scientist
Known for First programmable computer. First scanned digital image.
Spouse(s) Joan (née Levin) Kirsch
Children Walden Kirsch (KGW reporter), 3 other children.[2]

Russell A. Kirsch (born 1929) led a team of colleagues which, between 1947 and 1950, created America’s first internally programmable computer, the Standards Eastern Automatic Computer (SEAC).[3] By 1957 Kirsch and his team had invented a scanner which, using the computing power of SEAC, converted photographs to digital images.[4] This breakthrough created the basis for satellite imaging, CAT scans, bar codes, and desktop publishing.[5]


The first scanned digital image made in 1957, of Russell Kirsch's baby son, Walden .


Russell A. Kirsch went to school at the Bronx High School of Science and graduated in 1946. He continued his education at New York University in 1950, Harvard University in 1952, and later the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.[1]

Personal life[edit]

Russell is married to Joan (née Levin) Kirsch. One of their four children, their son Walden, a KGW TV reporter for 17 years, now works for Intel in the Communications department.[2][5] Russell has spent most of his professional life in Washington, D.C. where he was affiliated with the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology) for nearly 50 years. Russell is retired and now resides in Portland, Oregon.[2][6]


While working at the National Bureau of Standards (NBS), Kirsch and his team of colleagues, Wright, Shupe and Cooper, created America’s first internally programmable computer, the Standards Eastern Automatic Computer (SEAC) which became operable in 1950.[3] Internal memory greatly increased computer processing power and speed, which allowed for quicker applications development. In 1957 the team unveiled the drum scanner, to “trace variations of intensity over the surfaces of photographs”, and made the first digital image by scanning a photograph. The digital image, picturing Kirsch’s three-month-old son, consisted of just 30976 pixels, measuring 5 cm × 5 cm.[4] They used the computer to extract line drawings, count objects, recognize types of characters and produce oscilloscope displays.[4] Kirsch also proposed the Kirsch operator for edge detection.

Later in life, he became the director of research of the Sturvil Corporation and a past Advisory Editor of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE). He is currently the Advisory Editor of the journal, Languages of Design.[7]


Due to the importance of the first digital photograph, in 2003 Life magazine credited this image as one of the “100 Photographs That Changed the World”.[4] The original image is in the Portland Art Museum.[2] Although Kirsch did not work for NASA, his invention led to increased technology crucial to the 1960s space explorations, including the Apollo moon landing. Without the ability to scan digital photographs from a camera, today’s images of planets, the Sun, Earth’s surface (among others) would not exist. Medical advancements such as Sir Godfrey Hounsfield’s CAT scan can also be attributed to Kirsch’s research.[4]


  1. ^ a b Kirsch, Russell A., "Russell A. Kirsch", NISTS Museum; SEAC and the Start of Image Processing at the National Bureau of Standards (National Institute of Standards and Technology) 
  2. ^ a b c d Woodward, Steve (May 11, 2007), "Russell Kirsch: The man who taught computers to see", The Oregonian, 
  3. ^ a b Kirsch, Russell. “Computer Development at the National Bureau of Standards.” National Bureau of Standards. 31 March 2010.
  4. ^ a b c d e Newman, Michael E (24 May 2007), "Fiftieth Anniversary of First Digital Image Marked", Tech Beat (news release), NIST, retrieved 31 March 2010 .
  5. ^ a b Kirsch, Russell A (16 April 2008), Gualtieri, J, ed., What We Did and Should Have Done in the Past Half Century of Computing (PDF) (presentation slides), Information Science and Technology Colloquium Series, NASA, retrieved 31 March 2010 .
  6. ^ Ehrenberg, Rachel (2010-06-28). "Square Pixel Inventor Tries to Smooth Things Out". Wired News. Retrieved 1 July 2010. 
  7. ^ Kirsch, Russell A (31 Mar 2010), SEAC and the Start of Image Processing, National Bureau of Standards, retrieved 2012-08-07 .

Further reading[edit]