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Russell Kirsch, computer scientist who scanned first digital image, dies at 91

In this 2007 file photo, Russell Kirsch holds the image of his son, Walden, that was scanned into the world's first digital scanner in 1957. Mr. Kirsch, a computer scientist credited with inventing the pixel and scanning the world’s first digital photograph, died Aug. 11 at his home in Portland.Jamie Francis/Associated Press

Russell Kirsch was a 27-year-old computer scientist and, not incidentally, a new father when he did one day in early 1957 what many parents do, and brought a photograph of his baby to the office.

His office was the National Bureau of Standards — now the National Institute of Standards and Technology — where Mr. Kirsch was one of the few people authorized to work on the Standards Electronic Automatic Computer, or SEAC, the first programmable computer in the United States.

Although rudimentary compared with modern computers, SEAC was revolutionary for its time. Large enough to fill a room, it was used for purposes including Social Security accounting, Air Force logistics and computations related to the hydrogen bomb.


Mr. Kirsch — who joked in an oral history with the Smithsonian Institution that he could “confess to having stolen machine time from purportedly more useful products, like the thermonuclear weapons calculations” — envisioned another use for SEAC and future machines of its kind.

"What would happen," he recalled thinking, "if computers could see the world the way we do?''

To test his question, he chose a recent photograph of himself smiling proudly at his firstborn child. The boy, just a few months old, rests in the crook of his elbow, gazing wide-eyed into the camera that captured the moment in black-and-white.

The full image contained more information than the computer could absorb, so Mr. Kirsch snipped out a small piece containing just the baby’s face. He ran the image through a scanner and program that he and colleagues had fashioned.

“This was not something he ordered off of Amazon,” Jim Filliben, a NIST statistician and colleague of Mr. Kirsch, said in an interview, describing him as “a computer scientist before there was such a thing as computer science” and a “cross between a computer scientist and an engineer.”


The photograph was converted into an image 176 pixels by 176 pixels — a grainy shadow of the dazzling high-resolution photographs snapped today on smartphones, but nonetheless the first digital image.

Later ranked by Life magazine among the "100 photographs that changed the world," it became the foundation for technologies including satellite imaging, CT scans, bar codes and digital photography, according to NIST.

Mr. Kirsch died Aug. 11 at his home in Portland, Ore. He was 91. The cause was frontotemporal dementia, said his son Walden Kirsch, the subject of his father’s historic photograph, now age 63.

Russell Andrew Kirsch was born in Manhattan on June 20, 1929, the son of Jewish immigrants. His father, a pharmacist, was from Lithuania, and his mother, a homemaker, was from Hungary. In his youth, according to his son, Mr. Kirsch — already a tinkerer — scavenged for electrical parts to cobble together a generator that made his sister’s red hair stand on end.

After attending the Bronx High School of Science, Mr. Kirsch received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from New York University in 1950 and a master’s degree in engineering science and applied physics from Harvard University in 1952.

He joined NBS in 1951, the year after SEAC debuted, and spent his career as an electronic engineer in the data processing systems division and as a computer scientist in the applied mathematics division. After his retirement in 1985, he remained with the bureau as a researcher in the manufacturing engineering lab.


In addition to his work on digital imaging, Mr. Kirsch pursued research on artificial intelligence. “He was basically trying to understand how machines could acquire the knowledge that a human mind can,” Hans Oser, a mathematician who worked with Mr. Kirsch, said in an interview, drawing a distinction between artificial intelligence and machine learning.

“He was actually trying to mimic the functions of the brain — in other words, can one develop a machine that can generate new knowledge?” Oser said. “He strove for that all his life.”

Mr. Kirsch was married for 65 years to the former Joan Levin, an art historian with whom he used computer analysis to study the works of artists including Richard Diebenkorn and Joan Miro as well as cave art and petroglyphs around the world. They were longtime residents of Clarksburg, Md., before they moved to Portland.

In addition to his wife and son, both of Portland, survivors include three other children, Peter Kirsch of Denver, Lindsey Kirsch of Seattle and Kara Kirsch of St. Paul, Minn.; a sister; and four grandchildren.

As advances in technology drastically reduced the size of computers and increased their storage, a new parent could carry thousands of baby photos on a cellphone — a development that Mr. Kirsch scarcely foresaw when he scanned the snapshot of his son in 1957.

“I certainly could not have imagined that,” Mr. Kirsch told the San Jose Mercury News in 2009. “And I don’t know anybody else who could have.”


He regarded computers as fundamentally a tool for creation and often paraphrased a promise in the Book of Genesis, that “nothing would be withheld from us which we have conceived to do.”