The man who turned pictures into megapixels
Published September 9, 2005
ROCHESTER, N.Y. - Steven Sasson knew right away in December 1975 that his 8-pound, toaster-size contraption, which captured a black-and-white image on a digital tape at a resolution of 0.01 megapixels, "was a little bit revolutionary."
When anyone asked, the Eastman Kodak engineer ventured that it would become a reality in 15 to 20 years.
It would be a quarter century, though, before Kodak capitalized on Sasson's breakthrough: the first digital camera.
In the meantime, the company that pioneered mass-market photography was busily amassing more than 1,000 digital-imaging patents. Today, almost all digital cameras rely on those inventions.
But Kodak's transition to a new world of photography was hindered by a reluctance to phase out celluloid film, its 20th-century gravy train.
Not until 2001 did Kodak begin selling mass-market digital cameras, though it leapfrogged Sony and Canon in 2004 for the lead in U.S. digital camera sales.
But Sasson's alternative has gone from scientific curiosity to high-end novelty to America's most popular electronics gift, giving him star power late in his career and a few worries about his role in the steamroller effects of innovation.
After all, the toll of the digital-photography revolution on Kodak's work force "is enormous," he noted.
"Every once in a while," the Sasson joked, "some of my friends say they're going to put my statue up at Kodak Park" - the mammoth but shrinking film-manufacturing hub that George Eastman began erecting in the late 1800s.
Sasson, 55, never imagined as a relatively new Kodak hire in 1975 all the dazzling ingredients that have, in just a few years, put digital cameras in 50 percent of American households: fiber optics, the Internet, personal computers, home printers.
His invention began with a 30-second conversation.
Sasson, who had recently earned a master's in electrical engineering, said his supervisor, Gareth Lloyd, gave him a "very broad assignment: He just said, "Could we build a camera using solid-state imagers?' " - a new type of electronic sensor known as a charge coupled device, or CCD, that gathers optical information.
He set about constructing the digital circuitry from scratch, relying on oscilloscope measurements to guide him. There were no images to look at until the prototype was put together.
Completing their final voltage-variation test in December 1975, Sasson and his chief technician, Jim Schueckler, persuaded a lab assistant to pose for them. The image took 23 seconds to record onto the cassette and another 23 seconds to read off a playback unit onto a television. Then it popped up on the screen.
"You could see the silhouette of her hair," Sasson said. But her face was a blur of static. "She was less than happy with the photograph and left, saying "You need work,' " he said.
But an overjoyed Sasson knew the solution: By simply reversing a set of wires, the assistant's face was restored.
When Sony marketed the first filmless camera in 1981, a Mavica that worked off magnetic disks, Sasson thought: "Exciting development, wrong approach." It was based on television technology, "which had inherent limitations in image quality."
Besides, Kodak wouldn't be rushed.
Eventually, though, Kodak's dash to transform itself into a digital heavyweight has left a painful trail: Tumbling sales of film, which accounts for the bulk of its profits, will soon drop its global payroll to less than 50,000 employees from a peak of 145,300 in 1988.
In looking back at Kodak's long road to the digital age, Sasson doesn't believe his employer ultimately was late to the game.
"As much as other people may have introduced cameras earlier, I submit those cameras probably were not very easy to use - or very good by image-quality standards," he said. "The mission is the same as George Eastman's: Take this very important art and turn it into something "as convenient as the pencil.' "
[Last modified September 9, 2005, 01:18:20]
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