Booknotes: Playboy, Lena Söderberg and the first JPEG

Booknotes: Playboy, Lena Söderberg and the first JPEG

Mike Selby

The story is well known.

In 1953, a struggling copywriter for Esquire magazine quits his job, mortgages his house, sells his furniture, borrows a total $8,000 from everyone he knows, including his mother, and — using an unused photograph of Marilyn Monroe from a calendar company — publishes the first issue of ‘Playboy’ magazine.

Unnumbered because a second issue seemed unlikely, ‘Playboy’ spent the next six decades as one of the most successful publishing stories on the planet.

What is less well known is the story of the magazine’s number one selling issue of all time: the November 1972 issue. Featuring model Pamela Rawlings on the cover, this issue has no celebrities in it, no fiction by a well-known author, and its gossip is limited to a profile of Jack Anderson — a newspaper columnist (Anderson would later be the target of President Nixon’s “fixers” for assassination, which was only stopped by the would-be assassins getting arrested at the Watergate hotel. How crazy was it for a president to want a member of the press killed?)

Swedish model Lena Söderberg was the centerfold that month, and she is the sole reason for the issue’s outselling all other issues across 65 years. Playboy sold a whopping 7,161,561 issues that month, a record that has never been repeated. The sales were indeed because of Söderberg, but not in the way most people would expect.

Shortly after the November issue was published, a computer problem was being solved at the University of Southern California by handful of computer engineering students. Trying to upload an image into a computer by scanning it, the students were unhappy with the results. All they had to use as were the university’s collection of stock images used as test patterns for early 1960s television.

While they were trying to think of an alternative, a university staff member walked by with the latest issue of ‘Playboy’ tucked up under his arm. They accosted him, went straight to the centerfold, and felt as if they had discovered gold. Although most of Söderberg was visible, it was her face which struck them as having the perfect “output dynamic range” for their project. The students scanned her face (yes, just her face) and successfully uploaded it into their computer. The planet’s first primitive JPEG had arrived.

Using Arapent — the 1972 version of today’s Internet — they also transmitted the image to other computer engineering departments at various universities across the United States. The image — now known as the “Lena” or “Lenna” was soon gracing computer departments everywhere.

Since this field was heavily male-dominated at the time, the students and faculty wanted to see the rest of the “Lena” photo. They left their institutions en masse, crisscrossing the country and buying up any and all copies of the November, 1972 ‘Playboy.’ All 7.16 million of them.

The image of her was so strong (bless those Playboy photographers), it became the computer science standard for the next 25 years.

“No image has been more important in the history of imaging and electronic communications,” reported a recent computer science textbook by Carnegie Mellon University.

Söderberg’s image remains a vital and “important part of image-processing history, a key brick in the path that’s led researchers to the Internet, cameras, and smartphones of today image.”

So much so that at the 50th Annual Conference of the Society for Imaging Science in Technology, Lena Söderberg was invited to attend. She arrived married, a mother of three, and — in a nice twist — teaches disabled children to work with computers of all things. Before being tracked down for the conference, she had no idea that her image had been such a big part of computing history.

Addressing the crowd that had come to meet her, she stated that all these decades later they “must be so tired of me … looking at the same picture for all these years!”

Mike Selby is Information Services Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library