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    Lenna, the First Lady of the Internet

    A cheesy image of the Cernettes’ adorably amateurish band promo may have been the first ever uploaded onto the Web, but they were far from the first ladies to grace the internet (there’s a difference, you know). No, numerous subjects beat the Cernettes to the punch, many by decades. Above, you’ll find a photo of Lena, who’s perhaps the most famous.

    You might have seen her before — Wikipedia describes the shot as “probably the most widely used test image for all sorts of image processing algorithms (such as compression and denoising) and related scientific publications.” Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science says that “Over the past 25 years, no image has been more important in the history of imaging and electronic communications, and today the mysterious Lena is considered the First Lady of the Internet.”

    Yes, meet Lena Soderberg, the First Lady of the Internet (the Lena was Anglicized to Lenna over the years). The pic’s a tad more arresting than the goofy Cernettes shot, no? Well, that’s because Soderberg was a Playboy centerfold. The Swede was Miss November in a 1972 issue of the magazine, which was then at the height of its popularity.

    An article in IEEE Professional Communication Society has the origin story:

    Alexander Sawchuk estimates that it was in June or July of 1973 when he, then an assistant professor of electrical engineering at the University of Southern California Signal and Image Processing Institute (SIPI), along with a graduate student and the SIPI lab manager, was hurriedly searching the lab for a good image to scan for a colleague’s conference paper. They got tired of their stock of usual test images, dull stuff dating back to television standards work in the early 1960s. They wanted something glossy to ensure good output dynamic range, and they wanted a human face. Just then, somebody happened to walk in with a recent issue of Playboy.

    The engineers tore away the top third of the centerfold so they could wrap it around the drum of their Muirhead wirephoto scanner, which they had outfitted with analog-to-digital converters (one each for the red, green, and blue channels) and a Hewlett Packard 2100 minicomputer. The Muirhead had a fixed resolution of 100 lines per inch and the engineers wanted a 512×512 image, so they limited the scan to the top 5.12 inches of the picture, effectively cropping it at the subject’s shoulders.

    It’s strange; the image seems incredibly familiar, though I can’t recall any particular place I’ve seen it. It’s apparently made various pop culture appearances over the years (one in Woody Allen’s Sleeper), but there’s also just some ineffable quality there, something unusually elemental about it. I’d like to think the image is just so deeply ingrained into internet DNA that Lena evokes some kind of digital deja vu. But it’s probably just because she’s gorgeous.

    Montage by Rathus

    See the original test image and the original NSFW Playboy centerfold, shot by Dwight Hooker.

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    Topics: Internet, photo, technology-and-philosophy

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