How digital camera was invented

How digital camera was invented

Steve Sassen was an electrical engineer who invented digital camera while working at Kodak. The Rochester, New York-based company, which made a fortune selling photographic film and paper for much of 20th century, ironically did not see Sassen digital cameras as something important in photography industry. Unfortunately, lack of foresight led to collapse of Kodak.

In July 2022, Kodak announced that it was repurposing some of its expensive high-tech equipment to produce batteries for electric vehicles.

A young engineer gets a job at Kodak

Sassen (born 1950) graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York in June 1973 with a master's degree. That same month, he landed his first (and last) job at Kodak.

Kodak doesn't typically hire electrical engineers. They hire chemical and mechanical engineers because cameras are of course mechanical, and photo processing equipment requires both disciplines. Obviously, most of unit cost of manufacturing a consumer camera is spent on electronic and electrical components such as film enhancement, exposure control, and flash control. All this is implemented electronically, which makes hiring electrical engineers a new direction.

Sarson told PetaPixel, "When I interviewed there, I visited several Kodak offices." most interested. They take on all sorts of problems and challenges, and of course I love that. It is an interdisciplinary field of mechanical engineers, physicists and mathematicians in a fascinating environment, which is why I chose it to start my career. "

play with CCD sensor

Sarsen started working at Applied Research Laboratory of Instrument Engineering Department. This lab handles all equipment related work and has a wide range of franchises. He helps solve technical problems and explores new ideas.

One day Sassen's boss made him a job offer.

"He leaned over a filing cabinet in my office and asked me to pick a two-part project," Sassen said. "You can simulate exposure control of an XL cine camera, or look at this new charge-coupled device. I'm curious how it works and what can we do with it."

“I work in electronics group because I am an electronics engineer. This is a new type of equipment that we have never worked with before. electronic.

"I said that based on my experience in college, I'm interested in using CCDs. He said, "Better get one, experiment with it and see if there's anything that works or we can use it. Do something."

A charge-coupled device (CCD) is an integrated circuit containing a set of coupling capacitors that is widely used in digital camera image sensors along with CMOS.

Invented digital camera in two years

Sassin Leeworked frantically on a CCD and created a rough image of a large digital camera.

"I stole a lens from an old parts bin at an XL cine camera shop," Sassen explained. Since Super 8 format has a larger active area than a CCD, I could fit it into an XL cine camera assembly. On the film plane this will work.

This camera only has an electronic shutter, no mechanical shutter, and a shutter speed of 1/20 s (or 50 milliseconds). It has an infrared (IR) blocking filter because it is very sensitive to IR, which is a problem with incandescent lamps.

Sasson added a magnetic tape assembly, and although he thought about making a memory card for recording images, it worked in December 1975. The digital camera was invented - Sarsen made his big discovery during his two years at Kodak.

How digital camera was invented

Prototype digital camera. Courtesy of Eastman Kodak

"Kodak management treated me with curiosity and skepticism because it didn't look like a big invention," Sassen said. Since company's entire business model is centered on confidential products, it would be undesirable to advise them not to use any confidential products."

Kodak is in no rush to gobble up its cash cow in film photography with a new, yet-to-be-proven technology.

"I'll walk in with my crazy looking camera. It's about size of a toaster, but I can hold it," Sassen said. to playback block. It got everyone's attention."

How digital camera was invented

Prototype playback from a digital camera. Photo courtesy of Eastman Kodak.

"They didn't actually ask me what was going on," Sassen said. They just asked me why would anyone want to take pictures this way and there is nothing wrong with traditional photography. Nobody (including his boss at Kodak) asked me to design this camera. In fact, nobody even knew that I was designing a camera.

So, in many meetings in spring and summer of 1975, discussion was focused on whether this could become a viable form [of photography]. If yes, how long will it take? What will be required for this? In 1975, we probably had some of deepest discussions about digital photography in this room.”

Kodak's management may not have wanted to plunge headlong into digital photography, but Sassen himself continued to dig down rabbit hole of what would one day be ubiquitous mode of photography.

"I was fascinated by idea of ​​filmless photography so I wouldn't have to use consumables to shoot. I've been doing digital photography from that day in 1975 until I retired. So, I've been doing digital photography longer than anyone is growing and it motivates me a lot.”

The young inventor (at Kodak) was constantly asked when he thought it would be possible for consumers. Of course he didn't know.

"When you ask yourself questions you can't answer, you feel hopeless. I called research lab and asked how many pixels I need to take a photo on film equivalent to 110 film quality. Here's what I could consumer model that comes to mind, so I chose lowest level. They say 1 megapixel, 2 megapixels if you want color. I have 1 megapixel black and white, I should get 2 megapixels in color. I use Moore's law -20 years was calculated, which turned out to be a good prediction, albeit for all wrong reasons.

"I don't know what will happen during this period, but 18 years later we have first digital camera. So it's not a bad prognosis, just a happy one."

How digital camera was invented
The first digital portrait no longer exists

In first photo, technician Joey Marshall is working on a teletype machine a few steps from lab.

"She knew we were crazy in lab. There was nothing to photograph in our lab. So I grabbed my camera, walked down hallway, saw her and asked if I could take a picture of her.

“It was a strange looking device with all electronics, front lens and viewfinder. She was sitting there and I took a picture of her head and shoulders, this is first time I took a picture. photograph of a man with a digital camera.

The first digital photographer picks up camera and shoots tape. He inserted video into player and saw on TV her head and shoulder-length black hair. Chiseled, but her face is completely motionless and completely unrecognizable. When image appeared, she followed it back to entrance to lab.

"Need a job," she said, and turned to leave.

How digital camera was invented

“The playback device was designed by me,” recalls Sassen. “Each pixel is digitized into 4 bits, all 4 are 0 when it's black and all 4 are 1 when it's white. a very primitive microprocessor at time.

"I accidentally reversed order of these fragments in my head. So if all bits are 0 and black, order doesn't matter, so they show up as values. If they're all light-colored white, it doesn't matter, they look white.

"That's why black hair and white background make sense, so we can see that image is geometrically correct. But all midtones represented by variations 1 and 0 are reversed, so that makes sense.

"It took me about an hour to figure it out. Then I reversed some lines, which was easier than switching software, and picture came out in proper form.

"Black and white are placed correctly, but any shade between 4 bits and 16 shades of gray is mixed. You can see her face and background very well. that all pixels are in right place, which is a big part of success of game. But successive parts of image are distorted.

"It took us a year to work out details of this image processing chain. Everything had to be created from scratch. I couldn't understand anything. We had to develop a circuit to build it into camera while reproducing unit tests, and then connecting them to throughout system and see if we can get that part of signal chain working."

Unfortunately, first digital portrait photography quickly disappeared from history.

"We didn't save image," Sassen said. “I didn't notice it, I was just glad camera worked, and then we spent six months trying to improve performance. If he had kept image, it might have had some historical value [and a lot of money, since Mona Lisa's number one!].

How digital camera was invented

Digital camera prototype

Image size and memory

The file size of these first digital images was 10,000 pixels. It's 100 pixels per line, 100 lines, and each pixel is digitized to 4 bits. If you put it in bytes it would be 5000 bytes or 5 KB (kilobytes).

Images were recorded on 300 foot Phillips tape. Usually only two photographs could be stored on each tape, but in terms of length and bit density, they could store about 30 photographs. However, you will soon run out of cassettes, so they are washed and reused.

This is a continuous experiment aimed at continuous quality improvement. They did not expect any historical milestones. Their main concern is to make it work better and faster. Sometimes camera does not work mainly due to instability of CCD.

Kodak failure

Presumably, picture had to be viewed on an electronic screen, that is, a television screen. The resolution and color reproduction of photographic prints was much better than NTSC signals on television at time. Printing has been around for 100 years, and it's a great way to save photos, store them, retrieve them, organize them into books - obviously big business. They also think that people are comfortable using this method, so suggestion to store and retrieve images electronically is completely foreign.

So, it's not just about image accuracy. And its facilities, structure and infrastructure.

"But it met with a lot of resistance," inventor said. "I thought it was weird because we had a slide business where people would sit down and look at slides projected on wall, but it didn't make much of a difference." /p>

"This is one of obstacles (not enough detail), but it's not only obstacle. Even if you have a good resolution, limitation will be at level of technical limitations of NTSC or in case of European PAL.< / p >

"So we have to rethink that 110 film is not a Kodak color slide, so if you take pictures with a 110 camera you will get a much lower resolution than a 35mm slide."

Calculator or camera.

"People often ask question: how does this device become consumer?" Sai recalls. "Actually, will consumers accept a digital camera?"

"I had to draw an analogy when I was talking. I said imagine camera of future as a calculator that just came out. Hewlett-Packard released their HP 35 a few years ago and other companies came in without calculators. It's only digital product that consumer-like.

"Consumers started using calculators, so I said: think of a calculator with a lens. This is what I envisioned as a camera size of a calculator.

"I said if it can be improved to point where it can handle all these images, consumers will accept calculators. Put a lens and a CCD in there and calculator can also be a camera."swarm, similar to what I just showed Compared to calculator, size is small.

This is an idea I put forward at a meeting in 1975. This is a broad attempt without much data to support this. "

This was about 10 years before Macintosh and about 25 years before Windows XP. For Kodak management, word "digital" was fraught with risk and uncertainty.

"They (Kodak) didn't like word 'digital,'" Sassen said. "A fully digital product seemed even more distant, as strange as it sounds today, because there were no digital consumer products back then.

"Digital seems esoteric and a bit complicated, with lots of wires, relatively little integration and advent of microprocessors, but it's very difficult to operate and doesn't have a good reputation. In fact, it's digital, which makes it even more distant, futuristic, complex and dangerous.

How digital camera was invented

The Kodak Patent Office wrote to Sassoon requesting a report on invention of a new digital camera.

"When I was writing a technical report filing for a patent in 1978, I mentioned that it was an electronic camera, not a digital camera, so.

Below is a technical report written by Sassen entitled "Portable electronic camera and its playback system":

How digital camera was invented

Sasson with a camera

Where is camera today?

"I kept camera itself, it still exists. Now it's in Kodak," said inventor. “She has been on display at Smithsonian for several years. They returned it and placed it in Kodak Museum. I keep camera. Destroy them. Tax case.

"But I kept camera because it was too cool to throw away and no one cared, so I kept it. I even lost it once and got it back. If you see "Please" on back of camera, go back to Steve Sassen."

"When it became popular again in early 2000s, people were amazed that I still have it. Of course it's a historical document, so it's a historical artifact, but nobody cared about cameras back then. this camera has a cassette. . Unfortunately, there is nothing on this tape."

How digital camera was invented

On November 17, 2009, US President Barack Obama presented Sassoon with National Medal of Technology and Innovation at a ceremony held in East Room of White House

for inventing digital camera.

On November 17, 2009, US President Barack Obama presented Sassoon with National Medal of Technology and Innovation in a ceremony held in East Room of White House. This is highest award given by US government to scientists, engineers and inventors.

Sarson said, "I'm very lucky to represent people of Kodak... I'm very proud to be such an infamous person."

Before Obama put medal around Sassen's neck, President turned, looked at photographers outside East Room of White House and joked with them: "This photo must be good."

The President clearly loves to be photographed and had a nice private chat with him about photography. He learns that President will steal Pete Souza's camera to take pictures when Souza is not looking.

Looking back at birth of industry

"I didn't try to make great (images) because equipment I used was limiting me," Sassen said of his pioneering work in digital photography. "It's one of a kind and it's brand new. I'm trying to show photo system.

“The idea is to take [photos] without consuming anything. The only thing consumed is joules of energy. My idea is that I would like to suggest that at some point in future, consumers will be able to do this without using film or paper or any processing aid. You can do it right now. That's what I thought. So idea is, let's create a photography system and all of its elements. However, compared to current photography system, none of elements in picture are of good quality.

"I think if I get to 2 megapixels, my idea becomes feasible. In my opinion, I'm thinking about 2-3 megapixel range, and when we get to this point, I will be in 1975. Arguments raised will be allowed in 2019. This is an acceptable image, but low quality for consumer photography."

How digital camera was invented

Sassoon's 1976 letter to his father about his first digital camera patent.

“Now I don't know, from 1997 to 1998 CCDs and eventually CMOS sensors will be developed at a rate of about 1 million pixels a year. I don't think it's rate of improvement. "

How digital camera was invented

A note Sassen wrote in 2007 provided background information about his 1976 letter to his father.

After all these years, Sassen complained that Kodak had missed an opportunity to gain a first-mover advantage in digital cameras.

"(Kodak's bankruptcy announcement) makes me sad. I foresaw this coming and Kodak resisted it. They can't make as much money from digital photography as from traditional photography for obvious reasons that I've seen on many occasions . years.

"I left Kodak in 2009 because I thought they might disappear. I didn't want that either, but that's way it is. In end, I don't know what happened. They acted differently, different approach, results may be different.Again, it's hard for you to accept a change in underlying business model."