Portland’s inventory: Inventors of digital image processing, the wiki, and Linux all call the Rose City home

I’ve no idea what it is about Portland that attracts interesting inventors, but we seem to have more than our fair share.

Most folks know that Linus Torvalds—the guy who invented the Linux operating system and who is credited with sparking the open source movement—calls one of Portland’s suburbs his home. And some folks know that Ward Cunningham—the guy who invented the wiki and who was one of the original signers of the Agile Manifesto—lives in the area.

But now, apparently, we can add another inventor to the list: Russell Kirsch, the inventor of the programmable computer “first such computer capable of doing digital image processing.” (Thanks to Allen Wirfs-Brock for the correction.) A recent encounter with him popped up on Hacker News over the weekend—which captured this pearl of wisdom:

“I guess, I’ve always believed that nothing is withheld from us what we have conceived to do. Most people think the opposite – that all things are withheld from them which they have conceived to do and they end up doing nothing.”

According to Wikipedia:

Russell A. Kirsch (born 1929) led a team of colleagues in creating America’s first internally programmable computer, the Standards Eastern Automatic Computer (SEAC), capable of scanning digital images in 1957. SEAC produced a photograph of Kirsch’s three month old son in a mere 176 pixels, measuring 5x5cm. Because of this breakthrough, satellite imaging, CAT scans, bar codes, and desktop publishing were made possible.

On a day when any number of people are celebrating the transmission of a small thumbnail image from Mars, it seems the perfect time to recognize and thank those inventors we have living among us. Both those accomplished and those still working to invent.

Because it’s not often that the true inventors—the visionaries who truly change the world—are the people who capitalize on those inventions. In fact, more often than not, those inventors are just folks walking among us. And sitting next to us in coffee shops.

And Portland is lucky to have these three giants among us on a regular basis.

(Image courtesy Joel Runyon. Used under Creative Commons.)

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  2. I’m so glad Russell Kirsch is being rediscovered. He’s one of this nation’s living treasures — not only brilliant and inventive, but also a really nice guy. Your readers may enjoy a piece I did on him in 2007 in The Oregonian. http://www.oregonlive.com/living/index.ssf/2007/05/russell_kirsch_the_man_who_tau.html

  3. Thanks, Allen! Fixed and credited.

  4. I think you parsed the Wikipedia article incorrectly. SEAC wasn’t that first “programmable computer” (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stored_program_computer). What the article you quote says is that SEAC was the first such computer capable of doing digital image processing.

    I’m sure that Kirsch would prefer to be credited for his actual innovation.

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