Photographic Innovation: Steve Sasson's Invention of the Digital Camera06/22/2023
“To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.” There is no better role model for this Thomas Edison quote than Steve Sasson, the electrical engineer fresh out of grad school who was hired to work in a Kodak research lab in 1973. With a passion for scavenging parts and a penchant for invention, he developed the world’s first self-contained digital camera just two years after his arrival in the lab.
In honor of National Camera Day, we invited Sasson to the podcast for an in-depth discussion about his invention of this revolutionary device. Listen in to hear about the surprising reception Sasson’s prototype received from Kodak executives during early demonstrations of its use, the complicated mix of cultural and business factors confronting a company in the throes of innovation, the many years that elapsed before Sasson was allowed to speak publicly about the camera, and much, much more.
In addition to being a storyline worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster, our conversation offers rare insight into the inner workings of a long-established, successful company that knows a lot about the problem but doesn’t like the answer. Stay to the end to hear Sasson make a comparison to a groundbreaking technological development in the corporate world today.
Guest: Steve Sasson
Photographs © Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum
- 2:48: Steve Sasson’s memories of being hired as an electrical engineer for a Kodak research lab fresh out of graduate school in 1973
- 5:07: Sasson takes on a filler project to evaluate a newly developed CCD sensor and uses his interest in how light affects silicon and electronics to achieve a futuristic innovation
- 12:58: Using an audio cassette tape to store the electronic charge pattern, the playback system he needed to view the resulting digital file on a TV set, and building everything from scratch by scrounging for miscellaneous parts, just like he had done as a youth in Brooklyn
- 23:00: The challenges of presenting the world’s first digital camera system to Kodak executives, the perplexing reaction when no one understood, and the potential disruption to Kodak’s core business of film
- 32:19: Seeking comparisons to other industry developments of the time—a calculator with a lens—and Sony announcing its plans to make a new type of product using a still video floppy approach in 1981
- 38:42: Writing an invention disclosure and filing for a patent in 1978, followed by Sasson’s long wait to be allowed to speak publicly about his invention in 2001
- 45:39: Episode Break
- 46:43: Kodak’s past role in camera manufacturing, the matter of making cameras as a gateway to a new film format, and how the development of digital photography changed the process
- 50:34: Kodak’s role in the development of inkjet technology and Sasson’s work in the development of dye sublimation printers in the early 1990s
- 54:04: Sasson’s role in designing the very first DSLR camera, its use in transmitting pictures of the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising, and Kodak’s discomfort with the product for business reasons
- 59:54: The cultural issues Kodak faced with the question of image quality. How many megapixels are needed to approach the quality of film?
- 1:04:39: Sasson’s public relations work for Kodak, and his value as a project manager in charge of patent litigation
- 1:11:00: Sasson’s post-Kodak work to promote the importance of creativity and innovation in STEM fields, his thoughts about future innovation, overcoming the fear of failure, and the need to try things because of the possibility rather than betting on the probability of success
Steve Sasson invented the world’s first self-contained digital camera for Eastman Kodak Co., in 1975, changing the future of photography and transforming an industry.
Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, Sasson was always drawn to exploring electronics. After pursuing his interest in technology at Brooklyn Technical High School, Sasson studied electrical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1972 and a master’s degree in 1973.
Also in 1973, he took a position at an Eastman Kodak research laboratory, doing what he enjoyed most: working with electronics. In 1974, Kodak supervisor Gareth Lloyd tasked Sasson with evaluating the recently created charged-coupled device (CCD)—a mechanism that captures light and transfers it into usable data.
Given complete autonomy to tinker and innovate, Sasson reflected on his childhood experiences dismantling and resurrecting electronic parts, to consider how electrical pulses could be displayed as a 2D pattern, similar to the way televisions work. Wondering if this concept could be applied to an all-electric camera design, he committed himself to creating such a device. His persistence paid off in December 1975, with a device that combined a Super 8 movie camera lens, 16 nickel cadmium batteries, an analog/digital converter, a CCD imaging area array, and several dozen digital and analog circuits wired together on six circuit boards. This unwieldy contraption that could capture an image, convert it to an electronic signal, digitize the signal, and store the image became the prototype for the world’s first self-contained digital camera.
While Kodak dominated the era’s film photography market, Sasson continued to work quietly on digital camera technology. In 1989, he led the development of the first prototype megapixel electronic digital camera utilizing DCT compression and storing images to flash memory cards. During the 1990s, Sasson’s work for Kodak involved developing one of the first photographic-quality thermal printing systems, derivatives of which are still used in self-service imaging kiosks. Before retiring in 2009, Sasson served as a project manager in Kodak’s Intellectual Property Transactions group.
In recognition of his role in sparking the mass digitization of photography, Sasson was awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation by President Obama, in 2009. Additional accolades include his induction into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame, in 2011, the Royal Photographic Society’s Progress Medal, in 2012, and fellowship in the National Academy of Inventors, in 2018.
Steve Sasson Profile at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute: https://eng.rpi.edu/about/alumni-achievements/steven-j-sasson
Steve Sasson at the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame: https://www.invent.org/inductees/steven-sasson
Steve Sasson at the National Science & Technology Medals Foundation: https://nationalmedals.org/laureate/steven-sasson/
The George Eastman Museum: https://www.eastman.org
Host: Allan Weitz
Senior Creative Producer: Jill Waterman
Senior Producer: Mike Weinstein
Executive Producer: Yermy Weiss
Editorial Director: Shawn C Steiner