If your employee came to you in 1975 and told you he’d invented the digital camera, what would you do? If you were Kodak, the answer was to effectively shove him in a closet and hope the product never reached the mass market.
Steven Sasson went to work for Kodak in 1973, The New York Times reports. He was tasked with figuring out whether a “charged coupled device” (C.C.D.) had any practical application. This led him, through a series of steps, not only to invent the first digital camera but also to invent a device to display it on.
Sasson showed these devices to his bosses at Kodak in 1975. At the time, it took 50 milliseconds to capture the image but 23 seconds to record it to tape, according to the Times. Then Sasson would put the cassette into a player, which would take a further 30 seconds to put up a 100 by 100 pixel black and white image. The Times writes that the device was a strange mishmash of parts: a digital cassette recorder, a Super-8 movie camera, an analogue-digital converter, and other components connected through handful of circuit boards.
His bosses were unimpressed. “They were convinced that no one would ever want to look at their pictures on a television set,” Sasson told The New York Times.
Sasson tried to convince them that, while the image quality wasn’t great at the moment, that would improve rapidly.
He was allowed to keep working on it, over scepticism from his bosses.
In 1989 Sasson and Robert Hills made the first DSLR camera, which wasn’t a jury-rigged prototype, but one similar to the ones on the market today. It used memory cards and compressed the image.
Kodak’s marketing department, however, resisted it, according to the Times. Sasson was told they “could” sell the camera, but that they wouldn’t, for fear it would cannibalise film sales. At the time, Kodak made money off of every step of the photography business. Why give that up?
“When we built that camera, the argument was over,” Sasson told The New York Times. “It was just a matter of time, and yet Kodak didn’t really embrace any of it. That camera never saw the light of day.”
Kodak did make money off of the digital camera patent — billions in fact — until it ran out in 2007. But by the time the company embraced digital, it was too late. Kodak filed for bankruptcy in 2012.
For more on the history of the digital camera and Kodak, you can check out the full profile of Steven Sasson over at The New York Times.