In this article I thought we’d cover something a little different than usual. By now I’m sure you’ve heard that on January 9th, 2012, Kodak, the icon of cameras and photography for over 120 years, has filed for bankruptcy.
It’s hard to imagine a future without Kodak. Just think of all the future generations that will never get to capture a “Kodak moment”.
When asked, most people would say that this came as no surprise as Kodak was primarily a film company, and of course film is not as popular as it used to be. Perhaps you’ve heard of this new fangled thing replacing film called the digital camera….eh, it’ll never work!
Very few people know that’s exactly what Kodak said in 1975, and it’s actually one of the primary factors that led to their downfall 35 years later.
Did you know that Kodak actually was the first to invent the digital camera, way back in 1975?
Now I know what you’re thinking…”Scott you must’ve lost your mind, I had a digital camera in the late 90’s but it was an Olympus, or Sony, I don’t even remember a Kodak digital camera available for purchase”.
You are absolutely correct, in the late 90’s when a lot of camera companies started releasing their first compact digital cameras for consumers Kodak was nowhere to be found.
Nonetheless, they actually did invent the first digital camera in 1975, only the executives at Kodak never saw the potential in it. So they really did nothing with the technology until about 2001 when they released their first compact digital camera for consumers, the Kodak EasyShare.
You see 1975 was a very different landscape when it comes to technology than it is today. There were no cell phones, 10% of all households in the US didn’t even own a regular land-line phone (stephen blumberg). Computers came in the form of mainframes, and nobody had one in their house. Even the way we watched television was different.
Most tv’s in 1975 were still black and white and a small little set cost on average $100 (“Television history- the first 75 years”). By small little set, I mean only 12″, now that’s small. With those prices nobody had one in every room like we do today.
So you can easily imagine what happened when Steve Sasson, an engineer who worked for Kodak showed off a new piece of technology he created in the Kodak labs in a demonstration to Kodak executives called “Film-Less Photography” in 1975.
First a little background on the device. Steve Sasson and his team had actually invented the first digital camera. Of course it can only be called that loosely by today’s standards. As with any prototype it was a far cry from what the digital camera would one day become.
It did use a CCD imager as tons of modern digital cameras still do today, but that’s about where the similarities end.
It took 16 Ni-Cad batteries to run the device, which was made up of parts from other Super 8 movie cameras in Kodak’s line and about half a dozen custom circuit boards. The device recorded it’s images to a digital tape recorder which was attached to the side of the device. It took 23 seconds to record one image on a standard cassette (Sasson).
So now that Kodak was able to capture a digital image, how were they going to “play it back” and show people? Another device was built that would take the recorded image from the standard cassette and interpolate it for viewing on a standard tv. Of course, the playback device itself was almost the size of a tv.
Now that they had their prototypes, everything was set for Steve Sasson and his team to demonstrate these amazing new inventions to the internal audiences at Kodak. They invited countless Kodak employees to see the demonstration of “Film-Less Photography”.
I should remind everyone at this point that although Kodak did make and sell amazing cameras, they were primarily known as a film company, holding approx 90% of the market-share of film sales.
So when you invite the executives of a film company, to see a demonstration called “Film-Less Photography” you’re not exactly setting yourself up for success right out of the starting gate. Sure everyone thought it was “cool” when Steve took some photos of people in the audience and displayed them on a tv screen, but then came the hard questions…
Why would anyone want to take a picture and show it on their tv? How are people going to store these images? And the most important question of all, the one that probably caused Kodak executives to loose all interest in this prototype and shelve it for years to come, when would these new products actually have any consumer potential?
When the answer “approximately 15-20 years” came back from Steve and his team, Kodak executives saw no use in a product that couldn’t be fully realized until 20 years in the future. In addition, rather than view this a potential “future” of photography they only saw it as a competitor to their film business.
So many times in life, we look back and say “if only we knew”, but never was this more poignant than when you hear the story of Steve Sasson and his team and the colossal mistake made by Kodak executives that faithful day back in 1975.
Now am I implying that this one event, almost 35 years ago, was the cause of Kodak’s downfall and filing for bankruptcy? Of course not, but anyone can see clear as day how this certainly did have a major impact on Kodak’s future. Further, one can’t help but image where Kodak might be today had they actually taken advantage of their 20 year head start on digital camera technology.
stephen blumberg, Julian luke. “Wireless-Only and Wireless-Mostly Households: A growing challenge for telephone surveys.”www.shadac.org. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Center for Health Statistics, n.d. Web. 21 Mar 2012. <http://www.shadac.org/files/WorkshopSess1-1_Blumberg.pdf>.
“TV Set Prices.” Television history- the first 75 years. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Mar 2012. <http://www.tvhistory.tv/tv-prices.htm>.
Sasson, Steve. “We Had No Idea.” Plugged In. N.p., 16 O. Web. 21 Mar 2012. <http://pluggedin.kodak.com/pluggedin/post/?id=687843>.
Scott Dengrove is a professional photographer from the NYC area. Scott’s work has been featured in many national photography competitions and published in several nationally circulated magazines and publications. In addition, his work can currently be seen in 2 exhibits at Cosi® restaurants in New York and Connecticut and a traveling exhibit entitled “America: Coast to Coast”. For more information, and to see more of Scott’s work visit his website at www.dengrovestudios.com and connect with him on his Facebook page at www.facebook.com/dengrovestudios