Dawn of the First Digital Camera

Technology vanishes. It either succeeds and becomes ubiquitous or fails. For example, there was a time when networking and multimedia were computer buzzwords. Now they are just how computers work. On the other hand, when was the last time you thought about using a CueCat barcode reader to scan an advertisement? Then there are the things that have their time and vanish, like pagers. It is hard to decide which category digital cameras fall into. They are being absorbed into our phones and disappearing as a separate category for most consumers. But have you ever wondered about the first digital camera? The story isn’t what you would probably guess.

The first digital camera I ever had was a Sony that took a floppy disk. Surely that was the first, right? Turns out, no. There were some very early attempts that didn’t really have the technology to make them work. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory was using analog electronic imaging as early as 1961 (they had been developing film on the moon but certainly need a better way). A TI engineer even patented the basic outline of an electronic camera in 1972, but it wasn’t strictly digital. None of these bore any practical fruit, especially relative to digital technology. It would take Eastman Kodak to create a portable digital camera, even though they were not the first to commercialize the technology.

Kodak 1975

Steven Sasson, working for Kodak, received an early CCD image sensor from Fairchild in 1974. The going price for these, by the way, was $965 when they were introduced a year or so earlier. Kodak had an interesting blog post about the camera from the 2007 induction of Sasson into the Consumer Electronics Hall of Fame, although it seems to be gone. Luckily, you can still read it on the Internet Archive (the source of the still images of the Kodak device in this post are from the archived Kodak website).

Just like a bag phone doesn’t look much like a cellphone, Sasson’s 8-pound camera didn’t look much like today’s digital point and shoot — you can see it quite well in the video, below. Featuring a lens from a Super 8 movie camera, 16 NiCad batteries, and a cassette recorder, the box contained about a half dozen circuit boards that included an A/D converter design meant for a digital voltmeter. Even then it took 23 seconds to record one of the 30 pictures onto the cassette (although the 30 limit appears to have been arbitrary to mimic the number of shots on a roll of film which was usually 24 or 36).

Even for all that, the camera’s resolution was 100×100 4-bit greyscale pixels. Playback used a Motorola EXORciser to display the image on a TV screen — both of which weighed much more than 8 pounds and were decidedly non-portable. The camera wasn’t meant to be practical but was effectively a research project. Sasson wasn’t alone, of course, and is quick to credit other team members. There is even a patent on the technology.

Commercial Success

The first true portable digital camera that recorded images as a computerized file was created in 1988. The Fuji DS-1P in 1988, which recorded to a battery-backed 2 MB SRAM memory card that held 5 to 10 photos. Like the Kodak camera twelve years before, the Fuji was never actually sold.

Logitech Fotoman by Rama CC-BY-SA 3.0

The first digital camera sold commercially was probably the MegaVision Tessera in 1987 but there is little information about it other than it was expensive (over $50,000) and tethered to a computer. The first commercial portable digital camera was sold in Japan in late 1989. The DS-1X by Fuji was a refined DS-1P and was also sold as a Toshiba IMC-100.

The first commercially available portable digital camera arrived in the United States late in 1990. The Dycam Model 1 didn’t sell well at $1,000 with a low-resolution black and white image. The device eventually transformed into the Logitech Fotoman (pictured right). Kodak did make some early digital DSLRs, too, although they were not very recognizable.

When you think about it, a lot of technology had to come together to make Kodak’s first camera practical. The image sensor was the obvious problem, but you had to solve the issue of storage, battery capacity, and the ability to view, share, and print images. Flash memory, better battery technology, PCs, high-bandwidth networking in homes, and color desktop printers were all practically science fiction in the 1970s.

Irony

Digital cameras have outsold film cameras since sometime in 2003. Kodak announced in 2004 that they would no longer sell film cameras in most markets. By 2012 they filed for bankruptcy and had to significantly restructure.

Common wisdom is that Kodak suffered greatly from not anticipating the digital camera revolution. That’s a bit oversimplified, though, according to the Harvard Business Review. The real problem was that Kodak couldn’t let go of its traditional business. When digital started to pick up, they saw it as a way to get people to print more pictures, not as a way that would eventually replace most printed pictures.

Regardless, you have to sense there was a missed opportunity of some kind here. As for my original musing, I think I’ve decided the standalone digital camera is squarely on the successful side of disappearing. But disappearing it is — at least from the consumer market. While the camera itself is disappearing, the image sensor inside is just migrating to a phone, a device that is consuming a lot of other devices for many people. There’s still a fringe market for stand-alone GPS, but nothing like it used to be. Media players are the same. The devices are even cutting into traditional PC sales with the rise of a new generation often referred to as mobile-first. Digital cameras won’t completely disappear as DSLRs are still a gold standard for serious photography.

I think the lesson to be learned here is twofold: First, when faced with a new technology, you have to imagine what it will do apart from your existing technology. Don’t imagine digital imaging as another way to print. Imagine it as a new medium. But the other lesson is almost the opposite. Be sure to think about how it can fit in with your existing technology — even the non-obvious ones.

Granted, in 1975 few would predict that virtually everyone would walk around with a network-connected computer in their pocket. But by 2000 when Sharp introduced the first camera phone, you could make that leap of logic if you weren’t too distracted thinking about your historical core business or technology.

There is quite a bit of history surrounding the whole digital camera thing. There were digital cameras earlier than Kodak’s but they were not portable and were used in systems that didn’t suggest the digital camera market ahead. There’s a very interesting site with an extremely detailed timeline of events starting with a 1760 novel that — fictionally — had characters using a mirror that cured in the dark to show an image of the last thing it reflected. The list chronicles various achievements in photography all the way to the modern digital camera.

69 thoughts on “Dawn of the First Digital Camera

  1. “When digital started to pick up, they saw it as a way to get people to print more pictures, not as a way that would eventually replace most printed pictures.”

    Counter: Xerox Parc and the paperless office.

    1. The paperless office just took a lot longer to materialise than originally predicted, but it’s almost here. I sit next to our office printer, and I think it’s usually used to print less than ten pages a week. In fact, most of the time, the only use for printed documents are for something that requires a signature.

      1. I make my living doing invoicing and check printing, and business is booming. companies dont want paperless and ACH, they want a paper invoice and a paper check.

    2. “Paperless Office”, the joke of the 1980s.
      Attended a seminar on topic, started a pilot program, paper use went sky high.
      I seemed every digital image viewed, a print was made for the viewer.

      Side Note: Attendees were Intel, Ford Motor Co.,L.A. County etc. Held at the San Diego Offices of (Redacted)

      1. I think that those who think that the paperless office is not here are failing to realise just how _much_ paper there would be if the world still used paper like it used to. The module I work on has 25,000 pages of documentation (about twice the size of the Encylopaedia Britannica). And none of us ever dreams of printing that. Apart from anything else, without being searchable, a documentation stack like that would be useless.

  2. “The first true portable digital camera that recorded images as a computerized file was created in 1988.”

    So…
    the 1975 digital camera, stored its image as analog, then why did it have a a/d converter?

  3. The Apple Quicktake 100 possibly deserves a mention. It wasn’t the first, and wasn’t (in 1994) all that early, but it was one of the rfirst to take useful pictures at decent quality. Only 640×480 but with reasonable colour rendering and sharpness. An example is here http://www.bodgesoc.org/pann2.jpg which I recall prompting more questions about how I had taken the photos than about the subject of the photo. (I had borrowed a Quicktake100 from a well-funded university department)

    1. I got hold of an old 1Mpx Kodak camera many years ago, and was surprised the images that came out of it were superior to the 3Mpx camera I had. It was obvious why when I thought about it… the lens.
      Soon after 6Mpx phone cameras started becoming ‘the thing’, and a single glance at the grainy blurry photos that resulted from a lens barely 5mm diameter made me very aware that its’ not the sensor that makes a camera, it’s the lens that makes a camera. It is still the case today, and always will be too.

      1. My first digital camera, around 2003, was a hand me down 3.2MP camera, which must have cost my sister a fair amount. Like many things, it was before cost cutting so I assume the lense is better thn later but cheaper cameras.

        So it’s easy to find cheap cameras that are pretty good, so long as you can live with lower pixel count. Someone gave me. 1.6MP DSLR, though I can’t be bothered. But I paid $20 a couple of years ago for a Canon that has at least 5MP but 12x zoom, that would have been fairly top end when new. One can even screw in some lenses, but likely they’d be expensive now. For a lot of things, the extra MPs aren’t needed, but you get a better camera for a low price.

        Michael

        1. Unless you’re printing large posters or playing CSI:infinite digital zoom, anything above 8Mpix is a waste of space.
          If it’s just pictures you’re after, then a second hand DSLR or mirroless camera !with a good lens! is the best way for the amateur on a tight budget…

      2. “its’ not the sensor that makes a camera, it’s the lens that makes a camera”

        Yes, exactly. I still have an old Sony DSC-F55. It’s sensor is 2.1mp. But due to the really good lens, and a real CCD chip (instead of some cheap CMOS chip), it makes really, really good pictures. Resolution is low, by current standards. But it still makes better pictures than many current phone cameras with much higher resolution.

    1. I have one of the USB versions. Fortunately it’s the easiest version to ‘declaw’. Simply had to cut one pin on the encryption chip and the code data passes through unchanged. Computers see it as a HID keyboard.

      Some of the several variants the things had in their short production life aren’t as easy to convert to ordinary barcode wands.

      1. QV-30 owner here :) Artefact is how you could describe what those cameras produced, marketed as 640×480, while in reality producing shitty custom lossy compression format 320×240. Still I loved it to bits.

    1. Yes, its one of those sites managed by paranoid admins screaming about calling internetpolice!!1 He manually blocked Liberty Global (one of the biggest Euro cable ISPs) because of pings in his logs.

      Another interesting website about early cameras is http://www.digicamhistory.com/ you can browse by year using index at the bottom of main page.

  4. Interesting bit of trivia..
    I just picked up 4 Olympus 8 Mega Pixel digital cameras, salvaged from TSA face recognition setup.
    $10.00 each, Battery charger included.. Never used outside the original case, all data streamed to a central server.
    It seems TSA wanted more pixels..

      1. It looked like it was USB, and the cameras came with an “Accessory” wide angle screw in lens.
        (It unscrewed) The rest of the camera was “Off The Shelf” Olympus.SP-350.
        Actually there were two models, one with wide angle, one with UV screw in.
        I figured for $10.00, why not..

          1. As “Off The Shelf” it even had a glob of silicone preventing adjustment, leaving the camera on “Auto”.
            The salvage vendor had a few hundred in stock. It was strange, as they take pictures without a memory chip in place. So I’m assuming the image capture was off the USB, “Upstream”. I’m sure the government will support any inquiries you may have…

  5. The first transmission of an analog image would be 1924, by Richard H. Ranger at RCA? It sure took a while to extend the idea with analog to digital converters. It is now possible to convert an image instantaneously to a compressed digital representation using nothing more than a stack of holographic plates, no electricity required until it comes time to transmit the data.

    1. Well much earlier, though transmission is a generic term it could apply to the earliest methods using copper wire via telephone cabling for transmission of analogue signals commercially circa 1890’s (earlier experiments then a 1843 UK patent) didn’t take off in mass appeal as the few companies exploring it late 1890’s had no common comms standard and none wishing to adopt each other formats. Very niche markets for the few elites and those companies that survived supporting minimal sales to very private concerns (not mass marketed) before outbreak of 1914 war :/

  6. Amusingly enough, Sony made cameras that recorded *analog* images onto floppy disks: The Magnetic Video Camera, or MaViCa. A single track of the (oddball two-inch) floppy was used to record a single frame of a video image, and playback simply spun the disk under the read head with the signal streamed out to a monitor.

    The models we think of recording onto 3.5″ disks were actually named “Digital Mavica”, if you looked carefully. They wrote JPG files onto a FAT-formatted disk, and became very popular.

    1. I had one of those. The nice thing was if you were at your kid’s ball game and took some pictures of someone you could just give them a 3.5″ floppy — they were cheap enough unlike CF cards back in those days.

      That was before I realized with my ex-wife I had to be careful saying “Gee, that looks cool…” because she would wind up buying it for me regardless of the cost or if I actually wanted one.

    2. MaViCa was an important camera.

      The Tiananmen Square Massacre took place in 1989–where perhaps 10,000 Chinese citizens were slaughtered. Remember the tank guy? Dead.

      One of the first things the Chinese government did was to suppress reporting by switching off the satellite feeds used by the big news networks.

      Yet one or two networks managed to get photos thru to accompany their live telephone reporting. I had been working on an internal project using the MaViCa, and noticed several characteristic artifacts in the video news feed. Sure enough, CBS was quietly sending video stills back ever few minutes using the MaViCa player with the dial up phone modem accessory.

      1. except that famous Tiananmen tank “picture” was NOT taken with Mavica, in fact it wasnt taken with photo camera at all. It was a video still captured using Sony BVP-330 3xvidicon Tube Color Camera + Sony DIH 2000 Digital Image Handler (modem transfer).

        There are two other tankman pictures. The New York Times one from slightly different angle produced by Nikon F3, and mostly unknown Nikon F801 street level.

        1. I didn’t mean to imply that the “tank man” picture, specifically, was taken with the Mavica. Just that CNN (and I think CBS) had a new still photo every several minutes that circumvented the Chinese photo embargo by using the Mavica analog still video camera and analog phone modems.

  7. Why didn’t Kodak build their professional DCS cameras with their own Kodak SLR bodies? Instead, they built digital addons for Nikon SLR bodies. The DCS setups cost a pile and weren’t sold in large numbers, but buying an expensive high end body from their competition for each one had to case some irritation to someone at Kodak.

    1. Having worked for a few big companies, I can speculate. Big companies are rarely, if ever, big companies. They are a bunch of small companies with one name that share a very few things. So someone looked at the market and probably realized that for every Kodak body out there, there were 10 or 20 Nikon and that the Nikon owners were less cost sensitive and more results driven so they made the right business choice for their small company.

      I don’t know that, but I’ve seen similar situations before.

    2. Two reasons:

      1. Kodak didn’t make a SLR at the time.

      2. The DCS series were sold to professional photographers who already had an investment in Nikon lenses for their film SLRs, so compatibility with all their Nikon accessories was a major selling point. Remember, these things cost around $20K at the time. They were special-purpose instruments. One major market was sports photographers: if you were covering a late baseball game, you could upload your late-inning shots via modem to the newspaper if you had the digital camera. Otherwise, you had to leave the game early to get to the darkroom so you could process what you had before press time. That was worth the cost to some newspapers.

  8. In 2007 a Manchester friend kindly gave me a 1995 QuickTake 150 (with telephoto sliding lens cover!), but it took me about 7 years to sort out the drivers and OS to hook it up to a Mac LC II of mine that could use it (with AppleTalk serial) and find out if it worked and produced a lovely photo of my parents, fiancée and cat :-)

    Flash storage for 24 VGA photos!

    http://oneweekwonder.blogspot.com/2013/12/slowtake-quicktake.html

    1. So I HAVE TO chime in: QuickTake 200 here!
      Picked it up for peanuts around y2k at a flea market or the like for the giggles (had no Digicam anyway). It was fun to toy around with it, she let me dream about doing QTVR but this did not materialise…
      The QT200 ist stored in the attic, then in working condition.

      The nice aspect of digicams of 20+ years ago ist that standard batteries do fit, not proprietary sizes. Up to the user to choose rechargeable or not, still with the option of dry cells “just in case”. This was a criterion for my first new bought digicam some years later (Canon PS-95 iirc).

  9. Tektronix invented a digital camera in 1971 or 1972. It was called a “Scan Converter Tube” and was used in the R7912 oscilloscope. Different Name, but exact the same principle for a very special use . Storing (and loading) data was also available.

    1. Then we have to invoke the Cromemco Cyclops, published in the Feb 1975 issue of Popular Ekectronics. It used low density RAM with the top pulled off, though Ithink you were supposed to buy a modified RAM from Cromemco. Density is relative, at the time it was a fairly large I’ve RAM IC.

      It was a standalone project, except after the Altair 8800 cme along, Cromemco added interface so it would connect to the Altair.

      But I suspect some lab had figured out RAM could be an image sensor, and it trickled down. As I said previously, 1973’s Westworld used pixilation to show the robot’s view, and I’m sure I’d already seen something about digital image sensors in Popular Electronics.

      Michael

  10. My colleagues and I created the MegaVision Camera in the late 1980s. Our customers were large commercial photography studios capturing images for print. Because our camera eliminated not only 4X5 film and Polaroids, but color separation and drum scanning as well, its $50-100K cost could easily be justified. It was 4 MegaPixels, 2K X 2K square: enough pixels to print a professional quality, 150 line screen, 7″ X 7″ image on a web offset press. To my knowledge, Minneapolis-based Coast To Coast Hardware was the first company to adopt digital captures for use in print advertising. The images were captured at Photo Mechanical Services in Minneapolis Minnesota, run by Tom Austin and Tom Holzinger.
    We were capturing professional quality digital images in 1988 while the rest of the world was figuring out how break the 1 megapixel barrier.

    Ken Boydston

  11. Set the “Way Back Machine To Stun”. As early as the late 1960s, movie studios started adding a video camera on top center of the Mitchell BNCR, and other cameras, in an effort to speed replay of the “Dailies”. It was a cost and time saving effort, and clearly the primitive video cameras were not suited for production level movies. Today, much has changed..
    The “RED” and “Black Magic” cameras are legendary digital cameras with solid “Chops”.

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