Monday, November 21, 2016

I Invented the Computer! he said.

I wrote this article back in 2012. Russell Kirsch is a hero of mine. He called me on the phone what day many years ago so I wrote about it. I will never forget that conversation. This is a follow up for that article.

If you love Dilbert, you will understand why I loved the reappearance of Russell Kirsch in a article written for BoingBong. In case you don't know, Kirsch was the man that took the very first digital image and it was of his son. That was back in the 1950's. Kirsch loves a good laugh I think. That is why he says things like "I invented the computer"!  Not that the statement is untrue but just because those kind of statement do get your attention. 

BoingBoing had a story the other day about a man that had an encounter with Mr. Kirsch in a coffee shop. The encounter started with Kirsch saying, 

"That’s the problem with a lot of people”, ...“they don’t try to do stuff that’s never been done before, so they never do anything, but if they try to do it, they find out there’s lots of things they can do that have never been done before."  
When the much younger man asked what the old man had done, Kirsch said simply "I invented the computer." WOW! I am sure the young man wondered if that was true? I expect this incident to appear in a cartoon one day soon much like Al Gore saying he invented the Internet. But here is the truth...Russell Kirsch is a very interesting and important man in the world of "inventing the computer".

As it turns out, I talked with Mr. Kirsch back in 2007 after I wrote a blog post about him (I had spelled his name wrong but really he just called to say thank you). He told me his story of being a young man involved in the thermonuclear weapons calculations. This was during the cold war era in the 1950's. As I understand it, that program was the impetus for the building of the first programmable computer here in the United States. Kirsch had been a part of that program and he was the young man. An article published in the Oregonian in 2007 tells us:
Russell Kirsch with the 
image the first digital image.
2007 edition of the Oregonian

In 1957, Kirsch was a computer programmer -- a job category that, at the time, must have seemed closer to magician than to engineer. Kirsch and an elite team worked with SEAC, the Standards Electronic Automatic Computer, the federal government's first electronic programmable computer.
As he was telling about his work on thermonuclear weapons calculation (programming?), I think he mentioned the International Ballistic Missile program. He told me how he played with the computer on his own time...without the knowledge of his superiors probably. We all know that Dilbert's boss would have gone ballistic over something like pun intended. Kirsch may have spent a little bit of the company's time playing too but he didn't say that. Sounds familiar doesn't it? He laughed softly as he told the story. I had read an article in the Oregonian the day before (2007) about him. They told about the first digital image taken with a device he created using the the government programmable computers. That first snapshot was a picture of his son, a small baby at the time. The Oregonian told how that image was chosen by Life Magazine as one of the pictures that changed world. We all know digital photography is a wonderful addition to our world.

When I last talked to Mr. Kirsch he and his wife, an art historian I believe, were working on an Apple program looking at replicating art on the computer. I hope that research has been used somewhere in our cameras or computers today.

So did Russell Kirsch invent the computer? Well yes and no. Was he a man on the list of people that helped accomplish that task? Yes he was. Was he a man that changed the world in a very big way? I think so. But best of all I think he has a wonderful sense of humor that leads him to watch the face of a young nerds as he blows them out of water when he says, "I invented the computer." I love that a lot! And you might like to know that Russell Kirsch is in his 82 year of life...amazing!


Note: the original article is not available on Blogger anymore. I do have it printed somewhere but it is probably in Oregon and I am in Arizona. Darn.


  1. I love these kind of stories! How wonderful to live a life to see his 'invention' evolve!

    1. I feel it is such a pivilege to have actually heard his voice. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my whole life.

  2. What an incredible experience, Barbara. Thanks for sharing.

    1. I remember the day he called. We were in Napa, Ca. staying in a condo. I did not carry my cell phone with me back then. When I came back, a message was waiting. I cannot tell you now scared I was to return his call. Imagine! He was a lovely generous man that talked about things I will never understand. It was so much fun.


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