How the digital photography revolution began -- a story of cobbled-together parts and two scientists working under the gun

At Bell Labs in 1969, two scientists were told they had to make progress on a key research project or they would lose their funding. After just an hour of work, they had a breakthrough.

This was a milestone in the invention of digital photography, one of the most exciting inventions of modern times.

It has given mankind access to invaluable information about space and hugely advanced medical science. And it has completely transformed the daily life of millions around the globe. We can — and do — document our lives on a minute-by-minute basis.

Here’s how the story unfolded:

In the winter of 1975, Steven Sasson, a young engineer working in the Applied Research Lab at Kodak, tested out a new device for the first time. Now known as the first true digital camera, it was cobbled together using leftover parts he found in the lab. Thirty five years later, President Obama awarded Sasson the National Medal of Technology and Innovation for his invention.

First Digital CameraEastman KodakThe prototype of the first digital still camera, first constructed at Kodak Labs by Steve Sasson in 1975.

The camera was about the size of a breadbox and took 23 seconds to take a single black and white image, which was then stored on a cassette tape (see below). While the invention was far from the digital cameras we now use, it sparked a sea change in the way images are captured. Some argue that Sasson’s invention was where digital photography begins. But to say that would be to neglect the most important part of Sasson’ rudimentary camera, buried deep inside its scrap parts: the Charge Coupled-Device.

First digi cam tapeFast CompanySteven Sasson’s first digital camera stored 30 images on a cassette tape.

For centuries, scientists and inventors had tried to reproduce images mechanically, attempting to turn light into digital information. Over the years, great strides were taken to achieve this goal, many coming from research into space exploration, as well as spy satellites. Who would have thought that America’s Cold War with Russia would, in part, give birth to our digital cameras? But no step was more important than the invention of the Charge-Coupled Device, or CCD. 

Boyle and Smith Bell Labs CCD1Lucent Technologies Bell LabsWillard S. Boyle, left, and George E. Smith pose in the Bell Labs with a camera using their CCD invention, 1974.

As the story goes, George E. Smith and Willard Sterling Boyle, who would later win a Nobel Prize in Physics for their invention, were working in the AT&T Bell Labs during a time where different camps were working on different methods of memory technology. In 1969, they were approached by their VP, Jack Morton, who gave them an ultimatum: make something to compete with the current technology, or funds are going to be allocated elsewhere.

Under the gun, Smith and Boyle went into an office and, in one hour, emerged with the basic plans for the CCD, the sensor still used in digital photography today. A CCD works like this: Light hits a tiny grid of photosensitive silicon cells, each which build a charge proportional to the intensity of the light hitting it. This charge can be measured precisely and we can know exactly how bright that portion should be. Add filters, and colour can be discerned too.

These photo elements, or “pixels” as they came to be, make up the digital image. If one zooms in on a photograph far enough, you can see these tiny squares that make up an image. The more pixels, the more detailed the photo is. Pixels in an image directly relate to the pixels of a CCD. No one quite knows why picture elements began to be called “pixels,” though it is assumed to come out of Bell Labs in the 60’s. 

Dog pixelsPixabay/Business InsiderAn example of multiple pixels which make up a digital image.

These CCD’s were the essential element in Sasson’s digital camera at Kodak six years later.  

After news of Sasson’s invention spread, technology companies quickly began looking into how they might create their own digital cameras. Still it took six years for the first digital camera to hit the consumer market, and even then, it wasn’t very close to what we see today. The Sony Mavica (Magnetic Video Camera) was unveiled in 1981 and, it used a CCD, it was not technically a digital camera, as it recorded television signals as single images to a floppy disc. It didn’t fare very well on the market and was not widely released. 

Morio/WikipediaSony Mavica (Magnetic Video Camera), introduced in 1991.

The first digital camera made available in the United States was the Dycam Model 1, shipped in late 1990. It was also a failure, due to its lack of colour, terrible resolution, and hefty $US1,000 pricetag. In 1991, Kodak introduced a modified Nikon F3 which could capture images digitally and store them on a hard drive carried on the photographer’s shoulder. This camera was the first digital camera with the ability to change lenses (now known as a DSLR) and it cost a whopping $US30,000. It also had the honour of beingtaken aboard NASA spacecraft and used in space.

Nikon f3 dslr adaptionJim McGarveyModified Nikon F3 which became the first digital SLR camera.

Sadly, Kodak did not move quick enough on Sasson’s invention, opting to focus on its popular film cameras instead of developing these new digital photographic techniques. By the time they realised the technology’s potential, it was too late. In 2012, Kodak filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.


KodakREUTERS/Carlo AllegriOne of the now mostly unused Kodak factories in Rochester, New York. In 2013 Eastman Kodak Company filed for bankruptcy protection, capping a prolonged plunge for one of America’s best-known companies.

While most people don’t think of Apple as a major player in the digital photography game, they are credited by many with having released the first mainstream and successful consumer digital camera, the Quicktake 100, in 1994. Its images, in colour, were able to be downloaded to a computer via a USB port. 

Eduort/WikipediaThe Apple Quicktake-100, one of the first consumer-friendly digital cameras.

From here, the technology grew at a rapid pace. The Casio QV-10, released in 1995, was the first camera to incorporate an LCD screen on the back that would preview images for the user.

WikipediaBack view of the Casio QV-10 with its LCD screen visible.

The mobile photography craze can be traced back to 1997, when inventor Philippe Kahn, an already successful tech pioneer, created a prototype of the first ever cell phone camera and shared a picture of his newborn daughter to 2,000 friends and family over his wireless network. 

Phillipe kahnYoutubePhilippe Kahn posing with an enlarged image of his new born daughter, the first cell phone photo ever sent.

“The options the average person has today for imaging is unlimited. You walk around with your mobile phone or your digital camera today and the pictures are excellent, they’re reliably produced, you can share them instantly. I like to say to inventors, ‘Be aware that your invention is in an environment where the rest of the world is inventing along with you. By the time your idea matures, it will be in a totally different world.’ I think that was the case with the digital camera,” Steven Sasson recently told Fast Company.

Steven Sasson and ObamaREUTERS/Kevin LamarqueU.S. President Barack Obama (R) honours Kodak’s Steven Sasson, inventor of the digital camera, with the National Medal of Technology at the White House in Washington November 17, 2010.

In 2015, digital cameras and digital imaging are used all over the world for myriad reasons. They have become integral in virtually every industry imaginable, making creating, storing, and disseminating images.

In the medical profession, doctors utilise digital photography by documenting, cataloging, and sharing photographs, allowing for better diagnoses. They also work with technology, such as tiny digital cameras in pill form, to see in real time places in the body they never could see before.

Capsule EndoscopeWikipediaThe PillCam from Given Imaging, which patients can swallow to capture their insides.

From the very beginnings of digital imaging, space exploration has been a driving force. Today, digital cameras are used aboard spacecraft to view and document findings. On the ground, galaxies and planets light-years away are photographable, thanks to new technology in the digital-imaging field.

China protestsREUTERS/Sukree SukplangA nurse takes a photograph during a rally in front of the Government House in Bangkok October 16, 2012.

Elsewhere, digital photography is used to capture and analyse data in thousands of other fields as well, from nature photographers documenting never-before-seen flora and fauna to revolutionaries snapping and sending photos that will spark change, proving that digital photography truly is one of the most important advancements in the history of technology.  

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