How Steve Sasson Invented the Digital Camera

Steve Sasson is an electrical engineer who invented the digital camera while working for Kodak. The Rochester, New York, company, which had made its fortune by selling photographic film and paper for most of the 20th century, did not think that Sasson’s digital camera had any place in photography, and that lack of foresight ironically put Kodak out of business.

In July 2022, Kodak announced that it is repurposing some of the expensive, high-tech machines used to manufacture its photography film to produce batteries for electric vehicles (EV).

A Young Engineer Finds a Job at Kodak

In June 1973, Sasson (born 1950) graduated with a master’s degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York. The same month he landed his first [and last] job at Kodak.

Kodak did not usually hire electrical engineers. Because cameras required mechanical and chemical engineering, they were looking for mechanical and chemical engineers. It became pretty clear then that the bulk of the unit cost of manufacturing a consumer camera was going to electronic and electrical components like film advances, exposure controls, and flash controls. All of these were being implemented electronically, putting a new emphasis on hiring electrical engineers.

“When I interviewed there, I went to several locations at Kodak,” Sasson tells PetaPixel. When I got my summary of the day, they asked me what area I was most interested. I chose to focus on the research laboratory. They took on all kinds of problems and challenges, and of course, I liked that. It was interdisciplinary with mechanical engineers, physicists, and mathematicians with an engaging environment, and that’s why I chose it to start my career.”

Playing with a CCD Sensor

Sasson started work at the applied research laboratory in the apparatus division. The laboratory dealt with all things equipment related and was governed by a broad charter. The laboratory was responsible for solving technical issues and researching new ideas.

One day Sasson’s boss came up with a work proposal.

“He was leaning against the file cabinet in my office while offering me a choice of two projects to work on as I was between jobs,” says Sasson. “He said, ‘you could do modeling for exposure control for XL movie cameras or look at this new charge-coupled device. I’m curious how it works or what we could do with it.’

“I was in the electronics group — as I was an electronics engineer. It was a new type of device that we had not worked with before. The device had a two-dimensional surface for exposure, similar to a film. However, it was entirely electronic.

“I said I would be interested in working with the charge-coupled device based on my experience at college. He said, ‘Great get one and play with it and see if there is anything useful or what we might be able to do with it’.”

A charge-coupled device (CCD) is an integrated circuit containing an array of coupled capacitors — one that, along with CMOS, have become widely used as digital camera imaging sensors.

Inventing the Digital Camera in Two Years

Sasson went to work feverishly on the CCD and created a crude, largish representation of a digital camera.

“I stole the lens from our used parts bin on the manufacturing floor of the XL movie cameras,” explains Sasson. “Because the super eight movie format was larger than the active area of the CCD, I could place this in the film plane of the XL movie camera assembly, and it would work.

The camera had only an electronic shutter and no mechanical shutter, with one shutter speed of 1/20s (or 50 milliseconds). Because it was sensitive to IR and incandescent light, it had an infrared blocking filter.

Sasson added a tape assembly, although he had thought of building a memory card to record the image, and it became functional in December of 1975. Sasson was the one who invented the digital camera. He had his breakthrough almost immediately after he started at Kodak.

Prototype Digital Camera. Courtesy Eastman Kodak Company

“The reaction I got from Kodak management was one of curiosity and skepticism as it did not feel like a major invention,” says Sasson. It was hard to believe that this invention had been invented. This was an extremely scary view of the possibilities for the future. As the company’s entire business model was focused around sensitized goods, proposing that they not use any of that was not popular.”

Kodak was hesitant to cannibalize its cash cow businesses in film photography with an unproven new technology.

I would bring my strange-looking camera with me to the studio. It was only about as big as a small coffee maker, but it could be held,” Sasson said. Before I spoke, I took photos of everyone in the room. When a picture appeared on the television screen, I pulled out the tape that contained the digital information and placed it in the playback device. And that generally got everybody’s attention.”

Prototype Digital Camera Playback. Photo courtesy Eastman Kodak Company

“Indeed, they didn’t ask me how this worked,” Sasson says. They simply asked me why anybody would want to take a picture this way when there was nothing wrong with conventional photography. Nobody [including his bosses at Kodak] was asking me to develop this camera. Nobody knew I was working on this camera.

“So, the dialogue in those many meetings in the spring and summer of 1975 centered around whether this could be a viable form of [photography]. How long would that take if it were to become a viable form of [photography]? What would it take to require it to get there? We probably had some of the most in-depth digital photography discussions in that conference room in 1975.”

Kodak management may have been reluctant to dive headfirst into digital photography, but Sasson himself continued down the rabbit hole that would one day become the ubiquitous way photographs are made. I was intrigued by the concept of filmless photography, and not having to purchase consumables in order to make photos. I worked in digital photography from that day in 1975 till I retired. So, I have worked in digital photography longer than anybody, which has motivated me a lot.”

The young inventor was asked all the time [at Kodak] when he thought this would be viable for consumers. And, of course, he did not know.

“You get desperate when you ask questions that you cannot answer. I called the research labs and asked how many pixels I needed to make an equivalent of a film quality 110 film photograph. It was the worst consumer format I could picture, so I went for the lowest level. They said a million pixels, 2 million if you want color. So, I had 10,000 pixels in black and white, and I had to get to 2,000,000 in color. I used Moore’s law and came up with 15-20 years. It turned out to be not a bad prediction for all the wrong reasons.

“I didn’t know everything that would happen in between, but we launched our first digital camera 18 years later. So wasn’t a bad prediction, just a lucky one.”

The First Digital Portrait is No More

The first portrait was of a technician, Joy Marshall, working at the teletype a few doors down from the lab.

“She knew us as the crazy guys in the back lab. There was just nothing to take a picture of in our lab. The camera was not available in the lab so I took it with me and walked down the hall to see her.

“It was an odd-looking device with all the electronic things hanging out, a lens on the front of it, a viewfinder. She sat there, and I took a head and shoulders shot of her, and that was the first snapshot taken with a digital camera of a person.”

Photo courtesy Eastman Kodak Company

The first digital photographer took out the camera back and removed the tape. The first digital photographer took out the camera and removed the tape. He saw her hair on the television and it was dark. The picture was sharply defined. However, her face looked completely unrecognizable. He had led her back, and she was standing at the laboratory’s entrance when the photograph came up.

“Needs work,” she said, before turning around and walking away.

Prototype Digital Camera Playback system. Photo courtesy Eastman Kodak Company

“I had designed the playback unit,” remembers Sasson. “Each pixel was digitized to four bits, with all four being zero when it was black and all four being ones when they were white. Serially encoded each bit, I put them on tape and read them from the software that I wrote at the time, which was very basic.

” I had inadvertently reversed the order the bits were placed in my head. So, if all the bits were zero and black, it did not make any difference what the order was, so they showed up as values. It didn’t matter if they were white all the time with light tones. They would still show up white.

“That’s why the black hair and white background made sense, so we could see that the image was correct geometrically. But all the in-between tones represented by variations of ones and zeros were reversed, so it did not make any sense.

“It took about an hour to figure that out. Then I reversed some wires, and it was easier to reverse wires than change the software then, and the pictures showed up in proper form.

“The blacks and whites were all in the correct position, but any in-between tones of the four bits with the 16 levels of gray were mixed up. You could see that her face and the background were all right. We were pleased with that. We were pleased that the images showed all of the pixels had been placed in the correct places. The image’s continuous portion was not perfected.

We had spent a whole year creating details for this imaging chain. All of it had to be made from scratch. There was nothing I could lift from anything. We had to develop the circuitry, build it into the camera on the playback unit test, and then connect it to the whole system to see if we could get that portion of the signal chain to work.”

Unfortunately, that first digital portrait photo was immediately lost to history.

We didn’t save that image,” Sasson explains. Sasson says, “I did not take any note except that it was amazing that my camera worked. We spent six months working to make the camera work better. If he had saved that image, it would probably have had some historical significance [and a lot of money as the first digital Mona Lisa!].

Image Size and Storage

The file size of these first digital images was 10,000 pixels. It was a hundred pixels on a line, and 100 lines, with each pixel, digitized to four bits. If you put it into bytes, it would be 5,000 bytes or 5 KB (kilobytes).

Prototype Digital Camera. Courtesy Eastman Kodak Company

The images were recorded on Phillips 300-foot cassette tapes. Typically, only two photos were saved on each tape, but they could have stored about 30 in terms of length and bit density. You quickly outgrow tapes so you can erase them and reuse them.

It was an ongoing experiment to increase the quality. They didn’t see it as a historical landmark. They wanted it to work faster and better. The CCD can be unstable and sometimes the camera won’t work.

The Pushback at Kodak

The photo, it was presumed then, would have to be viewed on an electronic screen, which was a TV screen. A photo print had a higher resolution than NTSC signals on a TV. Prints have been with us for 100 years, and it was a great way to preserve photos, store them, retrieve them, put them into books — obviously, there was a big business there. They also felt that people were happy with that approach, so suggesting that they would store and retrieve images electronically was entirely alien.

It wasn’t only the image’s fidelity. It was also the convenience and the structure and infrastructure with it.

“But there was a lot of pushback on it,” says the inventor. “Which I thought was odd because we had the slide business with people sitting down and looking at slides projected on the wall, but that didn’t make much difference.

“That was the pushback [that it did not have enough detail], but it wasn’t the only pushback. You would not get the same resolution with a camera that has NTSC, or Europe PAL technical limits.

“So, it was right to push back on that, 110 film was not a Kodachrome slide, so if you were taking pictures with a 110 camera, you would get a resolution far inferior to a 35mm slide.”

A Calculator or a Camera

“The question that was often asked is how could this become a consumer device?” remembers Sasson. Sasson says, “In reality, would consumers even consider a digital camera-oriented product?”

” I had to use analogies while I presented. The future camera was like a calculator. HP came out with their HP 35 a few years before, and others were coming out with calculators. That was the only digital product that was somewhat of a consumer product.

“Consumers were starting to use calculators a little, and so I said think of a calculator with a lens. That’s how I envisioned the camera, getting small enough to be like a calculator.

I said that consumers will accept a calculator when it can process all of these images. Put the lens and the CCD in, then that calculator could also be a camera, and the size of the calculator is tiny compared to what I was showing.

“That was the vision I suggested in the 1975 meetings. It was a comprehensive attempt without much data to back it up.”

This was about a decade prior to the release of the Macintosh computer and almost a quarter-century before Windows XP was released. The word “digital”, according to Kodak’s management, was both risky and unknowable.

“They [Kodak] did not like the word ‘digital’,” says Sasson. “A completely digital product made it seem more distant, as odd as that seems today, because there were no consumer Digital Products.

“Digital as a technology seemed esoteric, a bit complicated, lots of wires, integration was relatively small, microprocessors were just coming out, but they were very awkward to work with and didn’t have a good reputation. It was also digital, making it more futuristic and complex.

“When I wrote a technical report, and when I applied for the patent granted in 1978, I mentioned it as electronics still camera, not a digital still camera, for that reason.

Kodak’s patent department wrote a letter to Sasson asking for an invention report on the new digital camera.

Here’s the technical report Sasson wrote, titled “A Hand-held Electronic Still Camera and its Playback System”:

Where is the Camera Today?

“The camera itself I have kept; it still exists. It’s up in Kodak now,” says the inventor. It was there for many years. It was returned by the Smithsonian and is now on display at Kodak. The camera was mine. I shouldn’t have. The R&D money was used to pay for it. When you are done, it is your responsibility to dispose of all the stuff. You have to pay taxes.

Sasson with Camera, Photo courtesy Eastman Kodak Company

“But I kept the camera because it was too cool to throw away, and nobody cared, so I just kept it. It was even stolen once, but I got it back. If you see the back of the camera, it says Please Return to Steve Sasson.

“When it started to get popular again in the early 2000s, people were surprised that I still had it. Of course, it is a historical document, so it’s a historical artifact, but nobody cared about the camera then. There was nothing on that tape. There is nothing, unfortunately, on that tape.”

Recognition for Inventing the Digital Camera

On November 17, 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama awarded Sasson the National Medal of Technology and Innovation at a ceremony in the East Room of the White House. This is the highest honor awarded by the U.S. government to scientists, engineers, and inventors

President Barack Obama points out all of the press photographers using his invention to Steven J. Sasson, left, who invented the digital camera at Eastman Kodak, during the National Medal of Technology and Innovation awards ceremony in the East Room of the White House, Nov. 17, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Samantha Appleton)

“I was a fortunate guy to be representing the men and women of Kodak … to be the person that gets this notoriety is extremely humbling,” says Sasson.

Before Obama put the medal around Sasson’s neck, the president turned and looked at the photographers in the back of the East Room of the White House and joked with them, “this picture better be good.”

The president evidently likes to take pictures, and met with him privately and had a good conversation about photography. The president stole Pete Souza’s camera in order to photograph Souza when he wasn’t looking.

Looking Back at the Birth of an Industry

“I was not trying to take fantastic [images] as I was limited by the device I was working with,” Sasson says about his pioneering work in digital photography. It was unique and the first of its kind. What I was trying to demonstrate was a photographic system.

” This idea is to take [photos] and not consume anything. Only joules would it take to consume this amount of energy. My idea was the sort of thing I wanted to suggest that consumers could, at some point in the future, take pictures without consuming film, paper, or any of the processing associates. You could even do it immediately. That was the idea. The idea was to create a system of photographic elements. However, the image quality of all the elements was inferior to that in the current photographic system.

“I thought my idea would be usable if I could get to 2 million pixels. In my view, I was thinking of in the 2 million – 3 million range, and once we reach that point, the arguments that I had in 1975 would be resolved. This image was acceptable, but it had low [quality] for consumer photography.

“Now I had no idea that starting in ’97 and ’98, CCDs and eventually CMOS imagers would advance at about a million pixels a year. That was the rate of improvement that I did not think would happen.”

A letter Sasson wrote to his father in 1976 about his first digital camera patent.
A memo Sasson wrote in 2007 with background information about his 1976 letter to his father.

All these years later, Sasson bemoans the fact that Kodak missed the boat when it could have seized first-mover advantage in digital cameras.

“I was sad about [Kodak filing for bankruptcy.] I saw it coming, and Kodak had a resistant attitude towards it. They couldn’t make as much money with digital photography than they did from traditional photography. This was obvious to me, which I have seen for years.

“I retired from Kodak in 2009 because I thought they would probably go away. It was not what I wanted, but they were just acting that way. Eventually, I didn’t know what had happened. It was clear that they had the potential to have a better outcome, if they tried a different approach. Again, it’s tough and very hard to accept that change in your fundamental business model.”

About the author: Phil Mistry is a photographer and teacher based in Atlanta, GA. He started one of the first digital camera classes in New York City at The International Center of Photography in the 90s. He was the director and teacher for Sony/Popular Photography magazine’s Digital Days Workshops. You can reach him here.

Image credits: Photographs courtesy the Eastman Kodak Company