Computer scientist Russell Kirsch, best known for inventing the pixel, passed away August 11 at his home in Portland, Oregon. He was 91-years-old.

Kirsch, who was of Jewish descent and the son of immigrants from Russia and Hungary, was born to in Manhattan, New York City, in 1929. It was there in New York City he would go on to graduate in 1946 from the Bronx High School of Science before heading off to New York University in 1950, followed by Harvard University in 1952 and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

In 1951, while still in school, Kirsch joined the National Bureau of Standards as a member of the Standards Eastern Automatic Computer (SEAC) team, which was in charge of handling the U.S.’s first programmable computer.

This image measured just 176 pixels by 176 pixels for a total of 30,976 pixels.

It was in 1957 though that Kirsch would forever make his mark on the world when he, alongside a team of researchers, developed a small 5cm by 5cm digital image scanner for the SEAC that went on to capture the first digital images, including a now-iconic raster image of Kirsch’s three-month-old son, Walden.

As explained in this archived post from the National Institute of Standards and Technology Museum, ‘the scanner used a rotating drum and a photomultiplier to sense reflections from a small image mounted on the drum […] a mask interposed between the picture and the photomultiplier tessellated the image into discrete pixels.’ Initially, the images were binary, capturing only black or white, but Kirsch and his team discovered that by scanning the image multiple times at different thresholds they could create a grayscale image by stacking multiple scans.

This technology allowed Kirsch and his team to develop algorithms that laid the foundations for image processing and image pattern recognition. Kirsch’s invention also helped NASA with its earliest space explorations, including the Apollo Moon landings, and paved the way for future imaging technologies, such as satellite imagery and Sir Godfrey Hounsfield’s CAT scan.

Even after Kirsch retired in 2001, he never stopped improving upon his inventions. As detailed in a 2010 WIRED article, Kirsch also sought to rid the world of square pixels, a design decision that has shaped the world of technology since its discovery in 1957. In speaking with WIRED, Kirsch said ‘Square [pixels] was the logical thing to do [but] of course, the logical thing was not the only possibility […] It was something very foolish that everyone in the world has been suffering from ever since.” And rather than ‘just complaining about what [he] did,’ Kirsch decided ‘to do something about it.’

Kirsch's variable-shaped pixel technology smooths out pixellated images by eschewing square pixels for more organic shapes.

The program Kirsch had developed at the time of the WIRED article analyzes a square-pixel images and attempts to rid them of obvious pixellation through clever masking. WIRED details the process here:

'Kirsch’s method assesses a square-pixel picture with masks that are 6 by 6 pixels each and looks for the best way to divide this larger pixel cleanly into two areas of the greatest contrast. The program tries two different masks over each area — in one, a seam divides the mask into two rough triangles, and in the other a seam creates two rough rectangles. Each mask is then rotated until the program finds the configuration that splits the 6-by-6 area into sections that contrast the most. Then, similar pixels on either side of the seam are fused.

Kirsch also talks about the variable-shaped pixel technology in the following video from 2011:

Kirsch passed away in his Portland, Oregon home from a form of Alzheimer’s disease. He is survived by Joan, his wife of 65 years, his children Walden, Peter, Lindsey and Kara, and his four grandchildren. You can read his obituary and sign the guest book on the Legacy tribute page.