DIGITAL IMAGING: Digital image scanning turns 50 years old

A grainy image of a baby just 5 × 5 cm in size turned out to be the well from which satellite imaging, CAT scans, barcodes on packaging, desktop publishing, digital photography, and a host of other imaging technologies sprang.

Jul 1st, 2007
Th 0707lfw N10

A grainy image of a baby just 5 × 5 cm in size turned out to be the well from which satellite imaging, CAT scans, barcodes on packaging, desktop publishing, digital photography, and a host of other imaging technologies sprang.

Click here to enlarge image

Fifty years ago this spring, the National Bureau of Standards (NBS, now known as the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST; Gaithersburg, MD) 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 3-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 first image by naming it one of “the 100 photographs that changed the world.”

Kirsch and his wife Joan, an art historian, now reside in Oregon. Together, they use computers to analyze paintings and define the artistic processes by which they were created. Their son Walden-whose face helped launch the era of computerized photography-works in communications for Intel following a successful career as a television news reporter. (Photo courtesy of NIST)

Hassaun A. Jones-Bey

More in Research