Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The First Digital Camera (via Kodak: Plugged In)

Kodak: Plugged In - We Had No Idea

[This is another extraordinary article from Kodak: Plugged In]

Written by Steve Sasson, the inventor of the digital camera, will be inducted today into the Consumer Electronics Hall of Fame.

In December of 1975, after a year of piecing together a bunch of new technology in a back lab at the Elmgrove Plant in Rochester, we were ready to try it. “It” being a rather odd-looking collection of digital circuits that we desperately tried to convince ourselves was a portable camera. It had a lens that we took from a used parts bin from the Super 8 movie camera production line downstairs from our little lab on the second floor in Bldg 4. On the side of our portable contraption, we shoehorned in a portable digital cassette instrumentation recorder. Add to that 16 nickel cadmium batteries, a highly temperamental new type of CCD imaging area array, an a/d converter implementation stolen from a digital voltmeter application, several dozen digital and analog circuits all wired together on approximately half a dozen circuit boards, and you have our interpretation of what a portable all electronic still camera might look like.

Vintage 1975 portable all electronic still camera

It was a camera that didn’t use any film to capture still images - a camera that would capture images using a CCD imager and digitize the captured scene and store the digital info on a standard cassette. It took 23 seconds to record the digitized image to the cassette. The image was viewed by removing the cassette from the camera and placing it in a custom playback device. This playback device incorporated a cassette reader and a specially built frame store. This custom frame store received the data from the tape, interpolated the 100 captured lines to 400 lines, and generated a standard NTSC video signal, which was then sent to a television set.

The playback device and TV

There you have it. No film required to capture and no printing required to view your snapshots. That’s what we demonstrated to many internal Kodak audiences throughout 1976. In what has got to be one of the most insensitive choices of demonstration titles ever, we called it “Film-less Photography”. Talk about warming up your audience!

Side-by-side comparison – Hardcopy vs. Film-less Photography

After taking a few pictures of the attendees at the meeting and displaying them on the TV set in the room, the questions started coming. Why would anyone ever want to view his or her pictures on a TV? How would you store these images? What does an electronic photo album look like? When would this type of approach be available to the consumer? Although we attempted to address the last question by applying Moore’s law to our architecture (15 to 20 years to reach the consumer), we had no idea how to answer these or the many other challenges that were suggested by this approach. An internal report was written and a patent was granted on this concept in 1978 (US 4,131,919). I kept the prototype camera with me as I moved throughout the company over the last 30 years, mostly as a personal reminder of this most fun project. Outside of the patent, there was no public disclosure of our work until 2001.

The “we” in this narrative was largely the people of the Kodak Apparatus Division Research Laboratory in the mid 1970’s and, in particular, several enormously talented technicians - Rick Osiecki, Bob DeYager and Jim Schueckler. All were key to building the camera and playback system. I especially remember working with Jim for many hours in the lab bringing this concept to life. Finally, I remember my visionary supervisor, the late Gareth Lloyd, who supported this concept and helped enormously in its presentation to our internal world at Kodak. In thinking back on it, one could not have had a better environment in which to “be crazy.”

Many developments have happened between this early work and today. Personal computers, the Internet, wide bandwidth connections and personal desktop photographic printing are just a few of these. It is funny now to look back on this project and realize that we were not really thinking of this as the world’s first digital camera. We were looking at it as a distant possibility. Maybe a line from the technical report written at the time sums it up best:

“The camera described in this report represents a first attempt demonstrating a photographic system which may, with improvements in technology, substantially impact the way pictures will be taken in the future.”

But in reality, we had no idea …

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