Steven Sasson, Inventor of the Digital Camera

by jdroth on 11 April 2011

When did you first see a digital camera? I first saw one in 1999. A friend borrowed a one-megapixel Kodak DC240 from somewhere, and he showed it to me one night over dinner. I was amazed. I’d recently become interested in photography, and the cost of film was killing me. A digital camera seemed like a great idea — except that the quality sucked.

Digital cameras have come a long way in the past twelve years; they’ve essentially replaced film cameras for the average photographer. But I’ve never really stopped to think about their origins. I guess I just assumed they’d been developed sometime in the 1990s, a sort of natural melding of computers and cameras. Not so.

Turns out the digital camera was invented in 1975 by Steven Sasson, an electrical engineer working for Eastman Kodak. After Texas Instruments developed an electronic camera in 1972, Sasson’s supervisor assigned him to find a digital solution. From Wikipedia:

[Sasson] set about constructing the digital circuitry from scratch, using oscilloscope measurements as a guide. There were no images to look at until the entire prototype — an 8-pound (3.6-kilogram), toaster-size contraption — was assembled. In December 1975, Sasson and his chief technician persuaded a lab assistant to pose for them. The black-and-white image, captured at a resolution of .01 megapixels (10,000 pixels), took 23 seconds to record onto a digital cassette tape and another 23 seconds to read off a playback unit onto a television. Then it popped up on the screen.

“You could see the silhouette of her hair,” Sasson said. But her face was a blur of static. “She was less than happy with the photograph and left, saying ‘You need work,”‘ he said. But Sasson already knew the solution: reversing a set of wires, the assistant’s face was restored.

In 1978, Sasson and [his supervisor] were issued U.S. Patent 4,131,919 for their digital camera.

It took nearly 25 years for digital cameras to make it from the lab to the mainstream, but now they’re everywhere. Sasson’s awesome idea has changed the way we take pictures. Last autumn, President Obama awarded Sasson with the National Medal of Technology.

Photographer David Friedman recently posted this three-minute interview with Sasson:

David Friedman has been profiling inventors since 2008. Sasson is his 32nd subject. You can see more of Friedman’s inventor profiles on his Vimeo channel or on his blog. (These profiles are awesome, by the way.)

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