Book review: A biography of the Pixel by Alvy Ray Smith

Alvy Ray Smith played a key role in creating a great deal of digital graphics content over the decades he worked at Lucasfilm and Pixar, and this book is a tour de force and a tour of the people, places, technologies, and companies that played key roles in these creations. The book, A Biography of the Pixel,  serves to correct the historical record about how the early digital computers and computer graphics software came to be and also provides the links between these early efforts — some of which might be well-known to you and some won’t be — and how different (almost always) men stood on each other’s shoulders to get us to where we are today. The illustrations are genius and help to explain his points in the evolutionary cycles of the Fourier series, Kotelnikov’s sampling equations, and Turing’s computational efforts, how computers and digital animation worked hand-in-hand, and the great digital convergence that we know and love today and celebrate what Smith calls Digital Light. You don’t have to know any math to find his explanations lucid and indeed, delightful. These innovators not only had a great scientific idea but drove technology into a fruitful application, while finding powerful supporters to help promote them. Along the way, you’ll see some old myths busted that digital can fully represent analog pictures and sound and how computers don’t have to be electronic numerical calculators — instead, they have become the most “malleable tool ever invented by humankind.”

I realize that a 500+ page book is a big commitment. I would start by reading the Finale chapter, which is a neat summary of all that Smith has presented in one cogent narrative. That should whet your appetite to want to dive into the entire epic journey.

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