Pixel Inventor, Computer Scientist Russell Kirsch Dies at 91 Years Old

Pixel inventor and computer scientist Russell Kirsch passed away days ago, leaving a digital legacy.
Brad Bergan
Walden Kirsch on vacation in Vietnam.Walden Kirsch / Facebook

Russell Kirsch, a computer scientist renowned for inventing the pixel and scanning the world's first digital photograph, died days ago in his Portland home.

At 91 years old, Kirsch passed on August 11.


Inventor of pixels Russell Kirsch died, 91 years old

Russell Kirsch was born in Manhattan in 1929, the son of Jewish immigrants from Hungary and Russia. He received schooling at the Bronx High School of Science, New York University, MIT, and Harvard University, and he worked for half a century as a research scientist at the U.S. National Bureau of Standards (now called the National Institutes of Science and Technology, or NIST).

"My dad, he was a super curious guy, always asking questions," said Walden Kirsch, his son, who works for Intel in the state of Oregon. "He was an iconoclast. When people said you can't go there or you can't do that, he did," reports Oregon Live.

Pixel inventor, 'iconoclast'

Pixels are the digital dots that display photos, video, and computer and phone screens — all of which were hard to imagine in 1957, when Kirsch developed a small, 2-by-2-inch (roughly 5-by-5-cm) black-and-white image of his son comprised of digital technology. Walden was an infant then, which made him a fitting subject for the nascent digital technology that scanned his face into a computer with a device manufactured with Kirsch's research team at NIST.

Kirsch's work "laid the foundations for satellite imagery, CT scans, virtual reality and Facebook," said a Science News article in 2010, later republished in Wired.

Computer scientist confronts 'pixelated' images

Of course, computers have become exponentially more powerful since the 1950s — you might be reading this from a hand-held device Kirsch helped make possible — but science has struggled with his decision to make pixels square for decades.

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Since pixels are square, they tend to make elements of an image appear clunky, like a jagged game of Tetris — breaking the immersion of the 2D virtual image. We all know the effect when we see a "pixelated" image.

"Squares was the logical thing to do," said Kirsch to Science News in 2010. "Of course, the logical thing was not the only possibility ... but we used squares. It was something very foolish that everyone in the world has been suffering from ever since."

In an attempt to smooth images over, Kirsch later developed variable-shape pixels, reports TechXplore. 

Russel Kirsch's wife is still alive along with his kids Walden, Peter, Kara, Lindsay, and four grandchildren.

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