A brief history of the digital camera

Photo courtesy of Plugged In by Kodak The digital camera is without doubt one of the most amazing inventions of the past century. It has become so affordable that everyone has at least one digital camera around their house, not to mention the built-in cameras on our phones. I remember my very first digital camera: a 3 megapixel brick that wouldn't even qualify as a toy today, but it was simply mind blowing when I first got it. 

However, the first digital camera was even larger than that. It weighted about 8,5 pounds and, as you can see in the picture above, it was quite big. Nothing you could easily slip into your pocket at a concert, that's for sure. But that was 1975 and we've come a long way.

Who Should We Thank?

In fact, the history of the digital camera begins about 20 years before that. In the mid 50's, famous actor and singer Bing Crosby and sound genius John Mullin became media pioneers by creating the first digital tape recorder that could transform live images captured by television cameras into electrical impulses, ultimately saving the information onto magnetic tape.

But digital imaging didn't stop there. The government and NASA used digital signals for their spy satellites and space probes, and their involvement had a very big influence on the evolution of digital cameras. In 1972, Texas Instruments patented the first filmless electronic camera, soon to be followed by Sony with their Mavica model. These camers could record images onto a minidisc, then display them on a TV. However, neither Texas Instrument nor Sony are the inventors of the digital camera as we know it. All they did was build cameras that would freeze frames of video footage, which is not at all the principle of digital photography. Nevertheless, we still refer to them as the fathers of the digital camera.

So, Who Is Responsible For This Brilliant Invention?

Photo courtesy of David Friedman

 My name is Steven Sasson, I invented the digital camera.

In 1975, Kodak released the first digital still camera with a playback system, invented by Steven J. Sasson. Who would have thought that an electrical engineer with very little knowledge of cameras and photography could completely revolutionize the art of photography for the entire world? 

Innovation best comes from people who really know nothing about the topic.

And that's exactly what he did. In 1974, he was given the chance to experiment with CCD (charge-coupled device), so he came up with the idea of the portable digital camera. The first digital camera built by Kodak stored information on a digital cassette that took 23 seconds to record an image. It could only store 30 pictures, which was actually decent back then. Sasson admits that he picked that number to be conveniently between 24 and 36, which were the the maximum frames people could shoot on film. 

The first picture ever taken happened in december 1975 and it was black and white. They displayed it on a television at the Kodak headquarters but, as you might expect, it didn't raise much enthusiasm. Why would people want to see their photos on a TV? Will they ever want that? Apparently, they did, as Kodak released the first consumer digital camera in 1995 in collaboration with Apple Computers. The Apple Quick Take had only 0.3 megapixels and could store a maximum of 32 pictures, no focus or zoom control included.

So, let's give a big round of applause for Kodak and Steven Sasson for inventing the first megapixel sensor and continuing their innovation process throughout the years. Kodak is also responsible for inventing the EasyShare system in 2001 that allows users to print and share their photos instantly, straight from the camera.

A Brilliant Idea

Why was Sasson's camera such a hit? Well, it's quite simple: he built a product around the needs of a current culture. As he said himself in the interview, the key to inventing something truly amazing is to keep track of what's going on around you, to understand the culture and to develop your essential idea around it, not the other way around. Of course he could've build a larger storage device for the first camera, but who would've needed hundreds or even thousand of frames back then? This is an important lesson many of us still need to learn, even today. 

Be sure that your invention is in an environment where the rest of the world is inventing along with you. So, by the time the idea matures, it will be in a totally different world. I think that was the case with the digital camera. 

Who Is David Friedman?

This is actually the second issue I wanted to bring to your attention. David Friedman is a very talented photographer currently based in New York City. His Inventors Project caught my attention the first moment I heard about it. At the moment there are over 30 masterful video interviews on his blog with, in my humble opinion, some of the most interesting people to have ever lived: the inventor of the convertible pizza box, the father of videogames and even the inventor of the automatic wheelchair break device. Pretty interesting, right? Plus, his portraits flawlessly manage to evoke the personality and genius of each of the inventors interviewed.