First ever digital image

According to an article in Discovery News (reported in Peta Pixel), the first digital camera was made in 1975, but the first digital image goes back almost 20 years earlier to 1957. That’s a long time ago for a technology that feels so fresh and urgent today. It was a normal silver print, but scanned and digitised by a very early computer.

More than 50 years ago, Russell Kirsch took a picture of his infant son and scanned it into a computer. It was the first digital image: a grainy, black-and-white baby picture. Kirsch made that first digital image using an apparatus that transformed his picture into the binary language of computers, a regular grid of zeros and ones. A mere 176 by 176 pixels.

176 x 176 pixels … 30 kilobytes (in grayscale). That would be an inkjet print roughly half an inch square, or 1.5 x 1.5 centimetres. I’m sure there must be a use for it somewhere.

Kirsch must be a remarkable scientist. In addition to making the first ever digital image, he and his teams invented the first programmable computer (the SEAC), the first drum scanner and the square-shaped pixel. On this last contribution he’s a little embarrassed and at 82 is hard at work designing algorithms that would scramble the pixel grid, allowing for finer resolution like the random pattern of film grain.

And that baby? He’s 55 this year.

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