First Digital Image – 1957 AD

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First Digital Image

Russell Kirsch (b. 1929)

“Working at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Russell Kirsch supported a team of mathematicians using the Standards Eastern Automatic Computer (SEAC) to model thermonuclear weapons, predict weather, and perform other typical functions of government computers in the 1950s.

In 1957, NIST set about answering a question: What would happen if computers could look at pictures? And with that, Kirsch created a scanner that made the first digital photograph.

Kirsch’s scanner consisted of a rotating drum and an optical sensor that could be independently moved along the drum’s axis. The sensor assembly started at one end of the drum and moved a little bit after each full revolution. The sensor could only detect the presence or absence of light. To make a grayscale image, Kirsch made multiple scans, each with successively darker filters in front of the sensor, and then electronically combined the results.

For the first picture, Kirsch affixed a 2-inch (5-centimeter) square photo of his three-month-old son to the drum and engaged the machine. The resulting image was a matrix of 176 digitized rows, each with 176 cells of grayscale. Kirsch had invented raster graphics, the idea of displaying a picture or graphic with a matrix of picture elements (now called pixels).

The SEAC scanner opened up entire new areas for computer research and applications. Kirsch’s approach of storing images as a grid of numbers dominates all computer applications involving images, including satellite imagery, medical imagery, and even the simple two-dimensional color display on the screen of the modern cell phone. An alternative approach for computer graphics based on vectors of light drawn on a screen (called vector graphics) vied with raster graphics in the 1960s and 1970s, but ultimately lost out due to its expense.

Kirsch went on to create the Kirsch operator, an algorithm that detects the edges of objects in a digital photograph. Later, he researched ways to use computers in the visual arts, both for analyzing existing artwork and for remixing existing concepts to create new art, all under computer control.”

SEE ALSO Fax Machine Patented (1843)

“Russell Kirsch’s three-month-old son, the first digital photograph, foreshadowing the millions of digital baby photos that would be shared in the future.”

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