First Digital Camera Came in ’75

Young Kodak engineer said it seemed “a little bit revolutionary.”

By BEN DOBBIN, The Associated Press

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Steven Sasson knew right away in December 1975 that his 8-pound, toaster-size contraption, which captured a blackand-white image on a digital cassette tape at a resolution of .01 megapixels, “was a little bit revolutionary.”

When anyone asked, the Eastman Kodak Co. engineer ventured that it would become a commercial reality in 15 to 20 years.

It would be a quarter-century, though, before Kodak began to capitalize on Sasson’s breakthrough: the first digital camera.

In the meantime, the company that pioneered mass-market photography was busily amassing more than 1,000 digital-imaging patents. Today, almost all digital cameras rely on those inventions.

But Kodak’s transition to a new world of photography was hindered by a reluctance to phase out celluloid film, its 20th-century gravy train.

Not until 2001 did Kodak begin selling mass-market digital cameras, though it leapfrogged Sony Corp. and Canon Inc. in 2004 for the lead in U.S. digital camera sales.

In the meantime, Sasson’s fanciful alternative has gone from scientific curiosity to high-end novelty to America’s most popular electronics gift, giving him unfamiliar star power late in his career and a few worries about his role in the steamroller effects of innovation.

After all, the toll of the digitalphotography revolution on Kodak’s work force “is enormous,” he noted.

“Every once in a while,” the garrulous, good-natured Sasson joked, “some of my friends say they’re going to put my statue up at Kodak Park” — the mammoth but now rapidly shrinking filmmanufacturing hub that George Eastman began erecting here in the late 1800s.

Sasson, now 55, never imagined as a relatively new Kodak hire in 1975 all the dazzling ingredients that have, in just a few years, put digital cameras in 50 percent of American households: fiber optics, the Internet, personal computers, home printers.

His invention began with a 30second conversation.

Sasson, who’d recently earned a master’s in electrical engineering, said his supervisor, Gareth Lloyd, gave him a “very broad assignment: He just said, `Could we build a camera using solidstate imagers?’ ” — a new type of electronic sensor known as a charge coupled device, or CCD, that gathers optical information.

Finding the literature on digital imaging to be virtually blank -Texas Instruments Inc. had designed a filmless but analogbased electronic camera in 1972 — Sasson drew on whatever wizardry was available: an analogto-digital converter adapted from Motorola Inc. components, a Kodak movie-camera lens and the tiny CCD chips introduced by Fairchild Semiconductor in 1973.

While most of Sasson’s career has revolved around finding ways to capture, store, transmit and manipulate digital images, he now specializes in protecting Kodak’s intellectual property.

source – Associated Press