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Russell Kirsch

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Russell Kirsch
Photograph of Russell Kirsch
Russell Kirsch (left) in Portland, Oregon with Joel Runyon[1] in 2012
Born(1929-06-20)June 20, 1929
Manhattan, New York, U.S.
DiedAugust 11, 2020(2020-08-11) (aged 91)
EducationBronx High School of Science (1946), BEE New York University (1950), SM Harvard University (1952), American University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology[2]
OccupationComputer scientist
Known forFirst digital image scanner
SpouseJoan (née Levin) Kirsch
ChildrenWalden Kirsch (KGW reporter), 3 other children[3]

Russell A. Kirsch (June 20, 1929 – August 11, 2020) was an American engineer at the National Bureau of Standards (now known as the National Institute of Standards and Technology). He was recognized as the developer of the first digital image scanner, and subsequently scanned the world's first digital photograph – an image of his infant son.[4]


Pioneering digitally scanned image of Russell Kirsch's son Walden, 1957


Kirsch was born in Manhattan on June 20, 1929. His parents were Jewish emigrants from Russia and Hungary.[5] He attended the Bronx High School of Science, graduating in 1946. He continued his education at New York University in 1950, Harvard University in 1952, and later the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.[2][5]

Personal life[edit]

Kirsch was married to Joan (née Levin) Kirsch for 65 years until his death. Together, they had four children: Walden, Peter, Lindsey, and Kara.[5] Kirsch spent most of his professional life in Washington, D.C., where he was affiliated with the National Bureau of Standards for nearly 50 years. He moved to Portland, Oregon, in 2001[5] after his retirement.[3][6]

Kirsch died on August 11, 2020, at his home in Portland. He was 91 and had suffered from Alzheimer in the time leading up to his death.[5]


In 1951 Kirsch joined the National Bureau of Standards as part of the team that ran SEAC (Standards Eastern Automatic Computer).[2] SEAC was the U.S.'s first stored-program computer to become operational, having entered service in 1950.[7]

In 1957, Kirsch's group developed a digital image scanner, to "trace variations of intensity over the surfaces of photographs", and made the first digital scans. One of the first photographs scanned,[8] a picture of Kirsch's three-month-old son, was captured as just 30,976 pixels,[9] a 176 × 176 array, in an area 5 cm × 5 cm (2" x 2").[10] The bit depth was only one bit per pixel, stark black and white with no intermediate shades of gray, but, by combining several scans made using different scanning thresholds, grayscale information could also be acquired.[8] They used the computer to extract line drawings, count objects, recognize alphanumeric characters, and produce oscilloscope displays.[10] He also proposed the Kirsch operator for edge detection in images.[11]

Later in life, Kirsch became the director of research of the Sturvil Corporation and an advisory editor for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). He was the advisory editor of the journal Languages of Design.[2]


In 2003 Kirsch's scanned picture of his son was named by Life magazine one of the "100 Photographs That Changed the World"[10] due to its importance in the development of digital photography. The original image is in the Portland Art Museum.[3] Although Kirsch did not work for NASA, his invention led to technology crucial to space exploration, including the Apollo Moon landing. Medical advancements such as Sir Godfrey Hounsfield’s CAT scan can also be attributed to Kirsch's research.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Runyon, Joel (August 2, 2012), "An Unexpected Ass Kicking", ImpossibleHQ.com
  2. ^ a b c d 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, archived from the original on August 9, 2012
  3. ^ a b c Woodward, Steve (May 11, 2007), "Russell Kirsch: The man who taught computers to see", The Oregonian, OregonLive.com
  4. ^ "Computer scientist, pixel inventor Russell Kirsch dead at 91". PBS NewsHour. August 13, 2020. Retrieved September 10, 2022.
  5. ^ a b c d e Rogoway, Mike (August 12, 2020). "Russell Kirsch, inventor of the pixel, dies in Oregon at age 91". The Oregonian. Retrieved August 12, 2020.
  6. ^ Ehrenberg, Rachel (June 28, 2010). "Square Pixel Inventor Tries to Smooth Things Out". Wired News. Retrieved July 1, 2010.
  7. ^ Kirsch, Russell. (March 31, 2010). "Computer Development at the National Bureau of Standards". National Bureau of Standards.
  8. ^ a b Kirsch, Russell A., "Earliest Image Processing", NISTS Museum; SEAC and the Start of Image Processing at the National Bureau of Standards, National Institute of Standards and Technology, archived from the original on July 19, 2014
  9. ^ Kirsch, R. A., et. al (December, 1957), "Experiments in Processing Pictorial Information with a Digital Computer", National Institute of Standards and Technology, archived from the original on December 21, 2016
  10. ^ a b c d Newman, Michael E (May 24, 2007), "Fiftieth Anniversary of First Digital Image Marked", Tech Beat (news release), NIST, retrieved March 31, 2010.
  11. ^ "Russell A. Kirsch – Obituary". The Oregonian. August 11, 2020. Retrieved August 12, 2020.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]