The technology that allows us to snap pictures on our phones in order to upload to Instagram and Snapchat was all thanks to engineer Steven Sasson, who invented the digital camera in 1975 at the age of 24 while working for Kodak, the biggest photographic film company at the time. His employers forced him to hide the camera, but decades later, digital photography has disrupted an entire industry and made Kodak film obsolete.
In 1973, Sasson began working for Eastman Kodak and was given a seemingly unimportant task to keep him busy and out of the way. His objective was to test for practical uses of charged coupled devices (C.C.D.), which were invented a few years earlier. Sasson said of his work:
“Hardly anybody knew I was working on this, because it wasn’t that big of a project.
“It wasn’t secret. It was a project to keep me from getting into trouble doing something else, I guess.”
Sasson embarked on his project to evaluate the C.C.D. devices. The device consisted of a sensor that received incoming two-dimensional light patterns converted into electrical signals. Though Sasson wanted to capture a photo with it, it wasn’t possible because the electrical pulses went away too quickly.
That was when he came up with the idea to store the image with digitalization, a fairly new process at the time. With digitalization, the young engineer was able to convert electronic pulses into numbers. By then he had run into another obstacle, which was figuring how to store it on RAM memory and then putting it onto digital magnetic tape.
The end product was a Rube Goldberg machine that was made up of odd parts including a used lens from a Super-8 movie camera, a portable cassette recorder, 16 cadmium batteries, an analog digital converter, and a few dozen circuits held together on six circuit boards.
Although a milestone, the early technology was understandably slow and crude by today’s standards:
“It only took 50 milliseconds to capture the image, but it took 23 seconds to record it to the tape. I’d pop the cassette tape out, hand it to my assistant and he put it in our playback unit. About 30 seconds later, up popped the 100 pixel by 100 pixel black and white image.”
Sasson still had hurdles to overcome such as creating a playback system that would take the digital information on the cassette tape and turn it into a picture on a television set, essentially a digital image. Sasson envisioned big things for his invention:
“This was more than just a camera. It was a photographic system to demonstrate the idea of an all-electronic camera that didn’t use film and didn’t use paper, and no consumables at all in the capturing and display of photographic images.”
Kodak was a tough crowd to please and wasn’t sold on the idea of a digital revolution:
“They were convinced that no one would ever want to look at their pictures on a television set.
“Print had been with us for over 100 years, no one was complaining about prints, they were very inexpensive, and so why would anyone want to look at their picture on a television set?”
At the time, Kodak owned a monopoly on the process of producing film photography from start to finish. Kodak executives were primarily interested in the competition of digital technology, which was predicted to be about 15 to 20 years in the future. Eighteen years later, Kodak offered its first consumer camera.
The first digital camera, or electronic still camera, was patented in 1978. However, Sasson was prohibited from speaking publicly about his invention or showing his prototype to anyone outside of Kodak.
In 1989, Sasson and his colleague, Robert Hills, co-created the first modern digital single-lens reflex (S.L.R) camera, which resembles our modern-day professional models. Kodak was still uninterested in the product but permitted them to market anyway. However, Sasson decided not to since the camera would take away profit from the company:
“When we built that camera, the argument was over. It was just a matter of time, and yet Kodak didn’t really embrace any of it. That camera never saw the light of day.”
Kodak still earned billions from the invention since the company owned the patent until it expired in 2007. By the time Kodak realized its potential, it was too late. Sasson explained:
“Every digital camera that was sold took away from a film camera and we knew how much money we made on film.”
“That was the argument. Of course, the problem is pretty soon you won’t be able to sell film — and that was my position.”
Sasson was awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation at a 2009 White House ceremony by President Obama. Eastman Kodak filed for bankruptcy three years later.