the first digital camera -- 9/15/23

Today's selection -- from Applied Minds: How Engineers Think by Guru Madhavan.  In 1975, Steven Sasson invented the world’s first digital camera:

“Sasson went to college at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. His freshman physics professor was a quiet, whimsical man, and a renowned educator. ‘OK, what problems have you had this week?’ he'd ask the class. Sasson always had a question, since he struggled with his homework. The professor would go to the chalkboard and ‘start off with an equation like F = ma, and three lines later he'd have the whole thing,’ Sasson recalled. ‘It was so elegant. It was so freaking elegant. Even if I had the right answer it took me three pages, but it took him just two or three lines. It was like watching Michael Jordan play basketball. It looked so smooth and freaking easy, but when you tried to do it you couldn't do it.’

“A few years later, Sasson read a biography of George Eastman. Eastman, who had dropped out of high school, was self-taught. An accountant by trade and an avid kitchen sink experimenter, Eastman eventually revolutionized film photography and founded Kodak. Sasson's core belief about engineering was influenced by Eastman's motto: an artistic technology like the camera should be as ‘convenient as the pencil.’ 

“Sasson joined Kodak. 

“As one of his first projects, Sasson was asked by his supervisor to explore the potential uses of a new technology called the charge-coupled device. The CCD is an electronic light sensor that was pioneered by Bell Labs. ‘It was at best a forty-five-second conversation with my supervisor,’ Sasson recalled. There were no formal reviews or expectations for the project. 

“Kodak then had a profusion of mechanical engineers. As one of the very few electrical engineers on staff, Sasson thought he should build an image-capturing system ‘with absolutely no moving parts.’ As an early-stage technology, the CCD was ‘very, very difficult to work with,’ Sasson remembered. Its resolution was 10,000 pixels (or 0.01 megapixel). ‘On top of the actual device was a folded piece of paper on which the twelve voltage designations were printed,’ he added. ‘Next to each one, handwritten in pencil, were specific voltage settings for each pin. At the bottom, it said, “‘Good luck!’” Sasson spent long hours in a back lab doing tests, incrementally inching toward a groundbreaking technology. He barely spoke with his supervisor. ‘Our plan was unrealistic. No one was paying attention. We had no money. Nobody knew where we were working,’ Sasson explained. ‘In summary, the situation was just about perfect!’ A year later-in 1976-the twenty-five-year-old Sasson finished a prototype. It was a clunky contraption, more like an 8-pound toaster, requiring sixteen AA batteries. 

“‘It was a dopey little device,’ Sasson said.

“‘It was my baby.’ 

Steven J. Sasson, inventor of the first digital camera, comparing his device with today's digital cameras.

“In a windowless conference room, cushioned chairs surrounded a long table in the center. Sasson was ready to demonstrate his prototype of the first digital camera to Kodak's upper management. He took a head-and-shoulder shot of one of the executives. Then he began to describe what he had done, cleverly trying to hide the twenty-three-second lag required to record each digital image on the magnetic cassette tape that stored them. The tape was then removed from the camera and placed in a purpose-built playback device that connected to a television. A black-and-white picture of the executive then appeared on the screen. 

“The people at the table were stunned. Some really loved the idea, and some hated it. Some were so shocked they said nothing. ‘The technical people were impressed that some stupid little kid in the lab could build this thing,’ Sasson recounted. But others launched a fusillade of questions and concerns. ‘Well, where would you store these images? You're not making a print. People love prints. People don't want to look at their pictures on a television set. Well, that image quality isn't good enough.’ 

“Sasson had no answers. 

“‘It was like ... shit!’ Sasson told me. ‘I immediately wanted to pull back.’ 

“In hindsight, who could blame those critics? Kodak was, after all, an institution anchored in Eastman's film photography. Here was Sasson showing pictures that didn't require film, photographic paper, or darkroom processing. This was a digital eruption in an analog world. ‘It was not a good way to get invited to the Christmas party,’ Sasson said. ‘The whole thing was too far out there to be seriously considered.’ 

"A colleague of Sasson told him privately, ‘Don't worry, the world will get there. They don't know it yet.’"



Guru Madhavan


Applied Minds: How Engineers Think


W. W. Norton & Company


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