kunc-header-1440x90.png
Our Story Happens Here
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Inventor Of The Pixel Russell Kirsch Dies At 91

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

I have taken hundreds of photos of my children with this little rectangular slab in my pocket.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Turns out smartphone photography was made possible by one man who decided to digitize a photo of his own son.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

RUSSELL KIRSCH: That was in 1957. The world's first digital image was my baby son when he was born in 1957.

KELLY: That is Russell Kirsch calling into NPR's Talk Of The Nation back in 2008. Kirsch died August 11 at his home in Portland, Ore. But back in the 1950s, Kirsch was a computer scientist for the U.S. government.

SHAPIRO: He wanted to know if computers, which at the time could be the size of a whole room, could learn to see images. So he found a way to digitally scan a photograph of his then-3-month-old son, Walden.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROASCAST)

R KIRSCH: That was 176 by 176 pixels, these pixels being just one binary digit, black and white. But things, of course, have improved.

KELLY: Notice how he said pixel. Scanning that baby photo required Kirsch to come up with a way to store it as tiny chunks of data. So he devised the basic building blocks of digital images - pixels - and asked for that picture of baby Walton.

WALDEN KIRSCH: It hung up on a corkboard in my parents' bedroom for many years.

SHAPIRO: That's Walden Kirsch today.

W KIRSCH: We never really grasped until somewhat later in my father's life that that picture kind of did symbolize the beginning of something pretty big.

SHAPIRO: Pretty big, indeed. Russell Kirsch lived to see his work changed the world - CAT scans, barcodes, satellite imaging and now iPhone cameras. But his son says Russell Kirsch was never in it for the fame or recognition.

W KIRSCH: My dad was very self-effacing. I think he was working in the moment and being creative and exploring and engineering different things and always had his soldering iron and his voltage meter out and so on.

SHAPIRO: Walden Kirsch says his father wasn't just a computer nerd. He wrote poems to keep his mind sharp, loved listening to Beethoven and took the whole family backpacking all over the country. And he was always curious. Walden remembers once telling his father something in school was boring.

W KIRSCH: And he said, no, no, no. Nothing is boring. You just have to ask enough questions. And once you ask enough questions and keep asking questions, everything is interesting.

KELLY: Today, Walden Kirsch is a journalist and a photographer. He says his father's love for storytelling inspired him to look at the world and capture it in new and interesting ways. Russell Kirsch was 91 years old. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.