Like every other self-respecting American male, I spent last night watching the NCAA men's championship game. And, like any self-respecting geek, I watched the game with an iPad on my lap surfing the net (and also playing with the Motorola Xoom tablet). While thus multi-multi-tasking, I ran across this piece on the Huffington Post:
This story made me sad. I am an admirer of both these iconic American companies. Reading about their legal disagreements was like watching Butler v. UConn - I didn't know who to root for because I liked both the under(Bull)dog Butler and the semi-local UConn Huskies.
But Kodak's patent protection pursuit holds particular resonance for me, especially after I constructed the digital camera buying tips I posted yesterday.
You see, while George Eastman did not invent photography, merely compacted it for widespread consumer use, his company did invent the digital camera. Wary about cannibalizing its film business, however, Kodak let other companies exploit the technology. Ironically, it was Apple which sold the first digital camera in May 1994 - the QuickTake 100, made by and filled with technology from (drum roll) Kodak.
Ain't history weird?
My Kodak story
Why does this story have resonance for me? Five years ago, I flew up to Rochester, N.Y., to visit the George Eastman House and Kodak's offices on assignment for American Heritage of Invention & Technology magazine to research and write a feature on the invention of the digital camera. However, while working on the piece, Forbes sold the magazine, and the story never got published - until now, albeit in ridiculously truncated form.
Our story begins in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, in the 1950s. Like many kids of his era, spy stories of the Cold War, atomic energy and news stories about hydrogen bomb tests and the nascent space race excited the facile mind of Steve Sasson. To feed his curiosity, he designed and built radio receivers, stereo amplifiers and transmitters in his basement with salvaged electronic components from discarded televisions and radios.
After a thorough technical and electrical engineering education at Brooklyn Technical High School and the Renesselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, N.Y., he joined Eastman Kodak Co. in 1973.
A secret project
"In early December 1974, my supervisor, a great guy called Gareth Lloyd came to me and said there were these new devices called charged coupled devices [CCD, the primary imaging chip that would make digital photography possible] that were just being commercialized," Sasson remembers. "[He said] why don't you see if you can do some imaging with this device. That was about all the direction I got. It was almost a hallway conversation that took place at the entrance of my office."
Sasson, who had done extensive college work on light and silicon, started thinking "let me try to capture an image. It became really clear to me that if I could digitize an image, freeze it, hold it, and analyze and store it and look at it, that was sort of the goal."
Lloyd had no idea what his charge was working on. Over the next few months in his small lab off a hallway in Kodak's sprawling Elmgrove Plant research campus in Rochester, Sasson went about constructing the digital circuitry from scratch, cobbling together varying parts he managed to procure scavenger-like around Kodak – an analog-to-digital converter from Motorola, an audio cassette recorder to store the digital images, a movie-camera photographic lens made by Kodak, and tiny CCD chips introduced just a year before by Fairchild Semiconductor.
Sasson's experimenting ran counter to conventional thinking about "digital" photography. In the mid-1970s, many companies were playing with electro-mechanical image storage techniques, such as those used to record video on video tape on that brand new gadget, the Betamax VCR.
But Sasson didn't know from VCR technology. "Digital was not a natural way to go. I was forced into it. It was a very low budget operation."
The first digital pictures
Joy Marshall, a lab technician, was sitting blithely at her computer when Sasson approached her, schlepping what looked like a giant blue toaster – and asked if he could take her picture. "She knew us, the weird guys from the back lab, but she didn't know what we were doing, no one knew. So she said okay, and I took a head and shoulder shot."
It took 23 seconds to record the .01 megapixel image onto the cassette. Sasson popped the tape out, stuck it into the jury-rigged playback device connected to an experimental 17-inch black-and-white cathode ray tube, and…
"The image was quite bizarre. What you saw was head and shoulders all in the right place, but the entire face was just static – you couldn't make out any features. Joy said, 'Needs work.'"
Sasson and his assistant knew they had all the digital data. So they fiddled with how the playback mechanism sequenced the digital bits, switched some wires around and, after a couple of hours of trial-and-error, up popped Marshall's image, clear and perfect, the first digital photo. Unfortunately, Sasson didn't save it. But as you can see in the photo, that first digital camera is now a treasured artifact.
…and the rest is history
Sasson was two decades ahead of his time. It took nearly a generation for component miniaturization, color CCD development, flash memory storage technology and the personal computer to become ubiquitous for the digital camera to become a viable consumer product.
And while Kodak was responsible for a great deal of these digital photography developments, it took the company almost too long to get into the digital camera business itself – but, as we've seen, it doesn't hesitate to vigorously protect the technology it and Steve Sasson pioneered.
Sasson is retired, but continues to consult with Kodak. In November 2010, Sasson received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Obama.
Naturally, digital cameras captured the moment.