Russell Kirsch, inventor of the pixel, passes away at 91

Kirsch's invention paved the way for widely used aspects of modern technology

The computer scientist credited with inventing the pixel -- the digital dots that have been used to display photos, videos and more on phones and computer screens over the past few decades – has died this week at the age of 91.

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Russell Kirsch passed away at his home in Portland, Ore., on Tuesday.

Kirsch brought pixels into reality in 1957 when he created a small, 2-by-2-inch black-and-white digital image of his son, Walden, as an infant. It was among the first images ever scanned into a computer, using a device created by his research team at the U.S. National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institutes of Science and Technology).

Russell Kirsch's invention, the pixel, has been used in phone and computer screens for decades. (iStock)

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The image of Kirsch’s son, according to a Science News article, measured a mere 176 pixels on each side and was just shy of 31,000 pixels in total.

Today, the digital camera on the iPhone 11 can capture roughly 12 million pixels per image, but Kirsch’s work “laid the foundations for satellite imagery, CT scans, virtual reality and Facebook," the article added.

Though computers have become exponentially more powerful and can now fit in our pockets, science has ever since been coming to terms with the fact that Kirsch made his pixels square. The square shape of the pixels meant that image elements can look blocky, clunky or jagged — just generally not as smooth as real life. There's even a word for this effect: pixelated.

“Squares was the logical thing to do,” Kirsch had told Science News. “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.”

Kirsch later developed a method to smooth out images by using pixels with variable shapes instead of the squares.

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Born in Manhattan in 1929, Kirsch was the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Hungary. He was educated at the Bronx High School of Science, New York University, Harvard and MIT and worked for five decades as a research scientist at the Bureau of Standards.

He is survived by his wife of 65 years, Joan; by children Walden, Peter, Lindsey and Kara; and by four grandchildren.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.