Steve Sasson, unsung hero…
Updated: Nov 10, 2020
V1.2 – 10.07.2021
In previous posts I may have mentioned that I’ve been doing this for quite a while.
My career has spanned over the 30 years that saw the rise of the digital revolution and the demise of the once great yellow company. It’s a company and a subject that interests me and I have a few articles that I’d like to share.
This post is a celebration of how far digital photography has come, and the contribution of a Kodak researcher called Steven Sasson, the inventor of the hand held digital camera.
I wanted to show you, with a practical demonstration of images, just how far digital photography has come since 1975.
Steven Sasson in 1973, the year he started working at Eastman Kodak. Credit: Steven Sasson
Regarding the claim that Steven invented the digital camera Wikipedia says:
“Steven Sasson invented the first self-contained digital camera at Eastman Kodak in 1975…
… His was not the first camera that produced digital images, but was the first hand-held digital camera”.
Well, OK Then… Let’s take a look:
Kodak’s first “hand Held” Digital Camera
I want one of those!
People of a certain age will see the cassette tape on the side. This gives us an idea of scale.
Now, my first reaction was to give a broad smile and a giggle, but then I began to see at it as a thing of beauty. There it is… The very first version of the tool I would use throughout the second half of my career.
A “digital” camera…
No film, no film batch matching, no film processing, no more processing errors, no Polaroid test prints, with smelly corrosive chemicals, no waste, no trips to the processing lab, fewer parking tickets, whilst waiting for film, no “once only” decisions about pushing and pulling the film, no clip tests and lost frames, no marking up film pods, no arguments with airport security staff about putting the film through the X-Ray machines, no fogged edges, no half moons or cockling, no scratches, no white gloves, no chinagraphs and traces, no sleeves, no moisture free storage… Nivarna’s precursor.
It takes vision and dedication to produce a piece of digital kit that stands alone in an analogue world, and further, to postulate what may happen in the future…
Context is everything. Think about the world, at that time, in which Steve lived.
- No public internet
- No personal computers
- No desktop publishing
- No digital storage
…in spite of all this. here it is…
Steven Sasson with his “hand held” digital camera
How did it work?
Using the exposure button, you took the picture, captured by a CCD, and the camera, wrote the information to the RAM, you then off loaded the image to a cassette tape. In principle, this is exactly the same as it is achieved today by my Sony A7R Mk3 mirrorless camera. The difference is that the SONY has a very large and speedy buffer and fast SD cards on which to offload the images. So, Steve’s camera used exactly the same principles as every compact, DSLR and mirrorless camera today.
What are the specs?
- 100×100 Pixel CCD Black & White Sensor
- 0.01mp Resolution
- 30 image capacity, on a single cassette tape drive
- 23 second “write to tape” time
- 3.6Kg in weight
- The camera was a prototype.
- It was made up of parts of Kodak’s Super 8 movie camera
- The circuit boards were custom, and it used a CCD sensor (Charged Coupled Device) that shot black & white
- Captured Images were transferred from the sensor to the camera’s RAM in about 50ms.
Referring to the issue of resolution, In meetings at Kodak, Steven said that he thought people would reasonably expect around 2 megapixels to be satisfied with the quality. That seems small now however, back then that was a vast number!
So what does a 100×100 black & white image look like?
It looks like this. Here’s me at 100 x 100 pixels, in black & white
100×100 pixel image
OK, now we have the image file captured, all we need now is a playback system and a screen on which to view it…
and here it is… from tape to computer to television
and here it is… from tape to computer to television. It may have looked like that in 1975 but it looks like this in 2019…
It may have looked like that in 1975 but it looks like this in 2019…
How does the 100×100 pixel image compare with an image from my SONY A7R Mk3?
Here’s a 100×100 pixel image of Cody:
This is the image size that the Kodak camera shot. Very nice, but quite small.
Note: in reality this image is a scaled down file, taken from the SONY original file.
Number of pixels: 10,000
Here’s the same 100 x 100 pixel portion of the same image taken from the original file that the SONY A7R Mk3 produces:
In case you can’t see it, this is the centre of Cody’s eye. (same image, same file)
Number of pixels: 10,000
To make things clearer, and as a visual aid only, here’s a same file as the image above that shows 1000×1000 pixels. That’s a hundred times more resolution (same image, same file)
Number of pixels: 1,000,000
And finally below, here’s the full file of the SONY shot…
The original file is 5304×7592 pixels, when used at full resolution (it’s slightly cropped!). What you see here is 583×785 pixels, Your screen would need to be larger than your desk and maybe your shelves, to see it all!
Number of pixels in the original: 40,267,968 (That’s over forty million pixels! Same image, same file). And of course this image is in colour (RGB)
We can’t have a SONY A7R Mk3 image (or Mk4 come to that) without Steven Sasson inventing the Kodak Digital Camera.
It was not until 1991 when we saw the Kodak DCS 100 as the first digital camera available to buy.
Just look at that storage device!
based on a Nikon F3. The Kodak DCS100, the first commercially available Digital Camera
So, now we have the camera… thanks, Steven.
What else is needed, so we can use it on a daily basis?
- We need to perfect the desktop computer (Circa 1977)
1977. The three computers Byte magazine referred to as the “1977 Trinity.” From left to right: The Commodore PET 2001, the Apple II, and the TRS-80 Model 1.
- We need Ethernet networks (Circa 1975 Xerox – Bob Metcalf)
- We need to perfect first, “dial up” analogue modems, and then, “always on” broadband DSL digital modems and then optical networks
(Circa 1970-today John Cioffi and Joseph Lechleider)
- Invent the TCP/IP protocol (Circa 1975 Vinton Cerf & Robert Kahn)
- Get the World Wide Web up and running (Circa 1989 – Sir Tim Berners Lee)
- Design and build browser technology (Circa 1990 – Sir Tim Berners Lee)
- Invent hard disk drives, on which to store the files (Circa 1980 – Seagate Technologies)
Seagate’s ST-506, with a 5Mb capacity. It is the daddy and a bad boy all rolled in to one.
- Formalise the image file formats so that we could exchange images (Circa 1974-1992 – Nasir Ahmed, T. Natarajan, and K. R. Rao)
- Invent the mobile telephone with cameras (Circa 2002 – Nokia 7650 & Sanyo SPC-5300)
- Invent social media (Facebook 2004, Twitter 2006, Instagram 2010) – other social media services are available 🙂
…all that history so that I can produce this:
Idiot boy gives the thumbs up to Steven Sasson
But that’s the point really isn’t it?
This technology allows us to share more. It liberates us to share as we like, when we like, and what we like.
One person’s silly thumbs up is another person’s “Kodak Moment“
So today, let’s celebrate Steven Sasson and Eastman Kodak, for the digital camera that produced images like this…
…that has led to technology that allows me to take pictures like this:
from a Canon G9 Compact Camera:
Koln Dom during the golden hour
and this from a SONY A7R Mk3 Mirrorless Camera…
View from Firefly Mustique.
and this from a Hasslblad 503cw with CFV39 Digital Back…
Romany – After Man Ray
If you’d like to hear what Steven has to say about his time at Kodak this video says it all: