Fiftieth Anniversary of First Digital Image

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.


[Top] The room-sized Standards Eastern Automatic Computer (SEAC) was used to create the first scanned image. [Bottom L.] National Bureau of Standards (NBS) researcher R.B. Thomas shown operating the SEAC scanner (the control console is in the background). [Bottom R.] The first digital image made on a computer in 1957 showed researcher Russell Kirsch's baby son. Credit: NIST

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 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. 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.