Digital memory


Sometimes an unclear brief can lead to a breakthrough invention. Steven J Sasson discovered that early in his career. An electrical engineer by training, he was barely into third year at the Eastman Kodak Company, when his supervisor Gareth Lloyd asked him if he could build a camera using solid-state imagers. This was a new type of electronic sensor known as the charged coupled device (CCD). Sasson gathered whatever scraps of information available on digital imaging back then and started work. A year later, in December 1975, he came up with a prototype of the world’s first digital camera.

It was a clunky, eight pound ‘toaster-sized’ device; one wouldn’t be caught dead with today. But it was revolutionary and much ahead of its time.

An image took 23 seconds to record on a cassette, which could then be played on a television set. Sasson called it film less photography.

Internally, the camera met with skepticism. “Why would anyone want to watch an image on a TV set?� Sasson’s colleagues often asked him. He didn’t have too many answers then.

Digital memory wasn’t about photography, it was about computers, but at that point in time there weren’t any personal computers around, in fact even calculators were just about starting to make an appearance.

The peculiar thing about organizations is that while the camera was invented in 1975, it hit the market in 1994. Companies that succeed with one technology one technology are slow to move to a different paradigm because it breaks the operating rules. Kodak faced that.

Kodak was the market leader then in the celluloid film business. It was reluctant to adopt technology that could shake things up. The price Kodak paid for the mistake was huge. Nimbler rivals like Sony and Canon latched on to the digital camera and the world lapped it up. The celluloid film business started to bleed and Kodak teetered on the brink for a while. In recent years though, it engineered a painful transition to the new world, but it still has some way to go before it catches up.

Sasson is very much satisfied because of his invention as all Digital cameras today use the tech Invented by Kodak in the 70s and 80s. In fact Kodak has already dragged Sony to court for infringement of intellectual property.