ISI Prepares Party for Prime Pixel Patent

October 9, 2006

A modest celebration will take Nov. 3 at the University of Southern California Information Sciences Institute to mark the 35th anniversary of the filing, by ISI's Peter Will and others, of the very first patent using the word "pixel."

Will, who also holds appointments in two USC Viterbi School of Engineering departments filed the patent, US3720875: DIFFERENTIAL ENCODING WITH LOOKAHEAD FEATURE, on November 3, 1971. He then worked at IBM.

A caption for one of the illustration notes: "Referring first to FIG. 2, the varying shades in the successive elements of the picture or image which currently is being scanned are converted by conventional means (not shown) into video code words that represent absolute grey-level values. These video code representations contain a sufficient number of bits per code word to represent the various grey levels of the respective picture elements (or "pixels") with a high degree of precision. For instance, if each of these code words contains eight bits (one byte), this would enable one to represent as many as 256 different shades or levels of grey."

Will had previously used the word in an IBM report in 1970. When he filed the patent, he and his two collaborators, Peter A . Franaszek and David T. Grossman, had no idea that it was the first to use the word.

Will found out about the distinction early this year, when Richard F. Lyon, now at Google but then chief scientist of Foveon, Inc, a maker of image sensors, contacted him while researching a history of the term.

Lyon had found that the term pixel, short for picture element, "was first published in two different SPIE Proceedings in 1965, in articles by Fred C. Billingsley of Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory."


Lyon's detailed history was presented in January at the IS&T/SPIE Symposium on Electronic Imaging and can be found here

The word was not Will's first choice: "I had visited Billingsley years before so got it from him but I still preferred and used pel and picture element because it seemed more euphonious.

Lyon's history notes "an IBM colleague told Will that [pel] was old-fashioned and he should use pixel instead. He switched, but IBM mostly stayed with pel."

Festivities planned to mark the date at ISI will include

The patent itself can be viewed here