June 29th, 2010


[OBSCURA] The first digital image: Walden Kirsch, 1957

I think it quite fitting that the first digitally scanned image was a picture of a baby scanned by his father. The National Institute of Standards and Technology wrote about this achievement on the 50th anniversary of this image's scanning back in May 2007.

It was a grainy image of a baby—just 5 centimeters by 5 centimeters—but it turned out to be the well from which satellite imaging, CAT scans, bar codes on packaging, desktop publishing, digital photography and a host of other imaging technologies sprang.

It was 50 years ago this spring that National Bureau of Standards (NBS, now known as the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST) computer pioneer Russell Kirsch asked “What would happen if computers could look at pictures?” and helped start a revolution in information technology. Kirsch and his colleagues at NBS, who had developed the nation’s first programmable computer, the Standards Eastern Automatic Computer (SEAC), created a rotating drum scanner and programming that allowed images to be fed into it. The first image scanned was a head-and-shoulders shot of Kirsch’s three-month-old son Walden.

The ghostlike black-and-white photo only measured 176 pixels on a side—a far cry from today’s megapixel digital snapshots—but it would become the Adam and Eve for all computer imaging to follow. In 2003, the editors of
Life magazine honored Kirsch’s image by naming it one of “the 100 photographs that changed the world.”

Kirsch père and fils were brought to my attention by Rachel Ehrenburg's Wired Science article examining how the elder Kirsch came up with a process for creating, not the square pixels used above and later on, but pixels of variable shape. (The consensus in the comments is that it's an unnecessary effort, an unneeded fix.)

I wonder. Has this image has an uninterrutped electronic lineage fifty-three years long, never having been scanned back in from a book or a paper or another physical document?