Moments in Time: The First Kodak Moment

Dec52011

Some world-changing events happen with a shot heard around the world. Others are only accompanied by a quiet click. This is one of those.

On December 1st, 1975, the first digital camera took its first picture. It was, quite literally, a Kodak moment.

In this 2008 video, Steve Sasson, the camera’s inventor, leads us through the genesis and development of his camera at Kodak’s research labs in Rochester, New York. 

It’s a great story in itself, but Steve also shares a number of insights into the forces that conspire to turn laboratory demonstrations into ubiquitous, world-changing devices.

Steve’s invention, which remarkably doesn’t have a name, wasn’t the first electronic camera. Solid state, analog video cameras had been around for a while. It was, though, instantly recognizable as a digital camera: a button is clicked, light is focused on an array of photodiodes, the resulting voltages are digitized and the results are tucked away as a string of ones and zeros in a storage unit. In short, it worked.

And then, nothing happened for fifteen years. So why the gap?

It’s highly unfair to say this, given what a technical tour-de-force it was, but the fact is that Steve’s 1975 camera wasn’t very useful. Its resolution was only 100x100 black and white pixels, it took 23 seconds to save the image (onto a compact cassette) and was obviously a prototype, with exposed circuit boards and a cassette (!) recorder bolted to the side.

But, there’s something else to consider. How useful would a modern digital camera have been in 1975? The colour inkjet printers we take for granted hadn’t been invented, so you couldn’t print it out. (The first inkjet printer, the IBM 4640, was introduced the year after.) It would be another two years before you could buy a personal computer to store and edit your pictures. There was no internet, so there was no Facebook, no, Flickr and no email. You couldn’t have shared the pictures you took anyway.

Steve was asked how long it would be before digital cameras became practical for the consumer. Brilliantly, he turned to Moore’s Law (then just ten years old), assumed that two megapixels would be acceptable (which must have seemed like an enormous number at the time) and came up with 15-20 years. No wonder his achievement wasn’t headline news at the time.

The first commercially-available digital camera was the Logitech Fotoman (you can read a great contemporary review here). The Fotoman wasn’t Steve’s practical camera: despite its polished consumer packaging, the image quality was still awful. The earliest camera I can find that meets Steve’s description is the Canon PowerShot S10 from 1999, so he was only a couple of years out.

Which brings me to another point that Steve makes so eloquently in this video:

“Any time you're inventing anything...realize that the rest of the world is inventing along with you.” 

Indeed, invention in the digital camera world continues at a breakneck pace. A particularly fertile area is the development of cameras for smartphones. The best smartphone cameras today have performance that rivals the best professional DSLRs of just a decade ago: eight megapixels, true colours and remarkable low-light performance (for a phone), in a package about the size of a baked bean.

Today, we announced a new technology to make the backside-illuminated (BSI) CMOS image sensors in those smartphones even better. BSI sensors are equipped with a tiny microlenses positioned directly above each pixel. The Applied Producer Optiva CVD system enhances the microlens by covering it with a tough, thin, transparent film that reduces reflections and scratches. This allows each pixel to gather more light, which further improves low-light performance and it also makes the sensor better able to withstand the rough-and-tumble life of a mobile phone.

In fact, Applied Materials is working hard in the background to provide the tools on which many key camera components are made. Image sensors, image processing chips, flash memory, MEMS accelerometers and even the touch-panel LCD screens – virtually all these components pass through Applied systems in our customers’ factories.

The ability to instantly share pictures, thanks to Steve Sasson and the wonders of the internet, has fundamentally changed the way we see the world around us. If you see something amazing happening today, you snap a picture and within seconds it fans out around the world. Imagine yourself in 1975. What kind of camera were you using then and how many people were you able to share it with?

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