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The word pixel is based on a contraction of pix (“pictures”) and el (for “element”); similar formations with el for “element” include the words voxel and texel.
In digital imaging, a pixel, or pel, (picture element) is a single point in a raster image, or the smallest addressable screen element in a display device; it is the smallest unit of picture that can be represented or controlled. Each pixel has its own address. The address of a pixel corresponds to its coordinates. Pixels are normally arranged in a two-dimensional grid, and are often represented using dots or squares. Each pixel is a sample of an original image; more samples typically provide more accurate representations of the original. The intensity of each pixel is variable. In color image systems, a color is typically represented by three or four component intensities such as red, green, and blue, or cyan, magenta, yellow, and black.
In some contexts (such as descriptions of camera sensors), the term pixel is used to refer to a single scalar element of a multi-component representation (more precisely called a photosite in the camera sensor context, although the neologism sensel is sometimes used to describe the elements of a digital camera’s sensor), while in others the term may refer to the entire set of such component intensities for a spatial position. In color systems that use chroma subsampling, the multi-component concept of a pixel can become difficult to apply, since the intensity measures for the different color components correspond to different spatial areas in a such a representation.
The word “pixel” was first published in 1965 by Frederic C. Billingsley of JPL, to describe the picture elements of video images from space probes to the Moon and Mars. However, Billingsley did not coin the term himself. Instead, he got the word “pixel” from Keith E. McFarland, at the Link Division of General Precision in Palo Alto, who did not know where the word originated. McFarland said simply it was “in use at the time” (circa 1963).
The word is a combination of picture and element, via pix. The word pix appeared in Variety magazine headlines in 1932, as an abbreviation for the word pictures, in reference to movies. By 1938, “pix” was being used in reference to still pictures by photojournalists.
The concept of a “picture element” dates to the earliest days of television, for example as “Bildpunkt” (the German word for pixel, literally picture point) in the 1888 German patent of Paul Nipkow. According to various etymologies, the earliest publication of the term picture element itself was in Wireless World magazine in 1927, though it had been used earlier in various U.S. patents filed as early as 1911.
Some authors explain pixel as picture cell, as early as 1972. In video processing, pel is often used instead of pixel. For example, IBM used it in their Technical Reference for the original PC.