National Inventors Hall of Fame®(NIHF) Inductee Steve Sasson, inventor of the digital camera, has always been a creative disrupter.
As a child growing up in Brooklyn, New York, he was immediately drawn to electronics and was never one to shy away from exploring new technologies. His innate passion and tenacity are illustrated in this story from his early years. After building an amateur radio at age 13 he accidentally sent out a signal on a banned frequency and received a letter from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
“My father simply couldn’t understand how this kid could get in trouble with the federal authorities,” Sasson said in an interview with NIHF. “We sent the letter back and it was fine, but I remember that was the first time that I felt my parents didn’t know what to do with me.”
Sasson’s interest in technology continued to grow, and he attended Brooklyn Technical High School before graduating with both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Right out of graduate school, he landed a job working at a research laboratory at the Eastman Kodak Company and was amazed that he had found a job doing what he enjoyed most of all: tinkering with electronics.
“The most amazing thing about being at Kodak was that they paid me to do what I loved,” Sasson said. “They had all the parts right there, and it was actually a lot easier to do some of this stuff there than it was when I was in Brooklyn.”
At Kodak, Sasson’s supervisor Gareth Lloyd tasked him with finding a practical use for the recently created charged coupled device (CCD) – a mechanism that captures light and transfers into usable data.
“Hardly anybody knew I was working on this, because it wasn’t that big of a project,” Sasson recalled in an interview with The New York Times. “It wasn’t secret. It was just a project to keep me from getting into trouble doing something else, I guess.”
Inventing the Digital Camera
Over the course of a year, Sasson was given complete autonomy. His experience taking apart electronics as a child made him think about how electrical pulses could be displayed as a two-dimensional pattern, much like how a television works. He wondered if this same concept could be applied to an all-electric camera design that contained no moving parts and committed himself to creating such a device.
Each day Sasson had had the unique opportunity to pioneer new advances in his field. While his days were filled with excitement, he also experienced his fair share of uncertainty. Because no road map existed, the only path he followed was the one he created.
“I’d take my shower in the morning, and I’d say, ‘why did I say I was going to build this stupid camera?’” Sasson said. “Why did I tell people I was going to do this?”
However, he did not give up, and his resolve paid off. In December 1975, he produced a device that combined a lens from a Super-8 movie camera, 16 nickel cadmium batteries, an analog/digital converter, a CCD imaging area array, an A/D converter and several dozen digital and analog circuits wired together on half a dozen circuit boards: the world’s first digital camera.
While today we live in a world where life without digital photography seems unimaginable, Kodak was reluctant to embrace this new technology. Because the company had a lucrative monopoly on the film photography market in the United States, they saw little reason to disrupt the status quo.
This decision would prove costly. Though Sasson continued working on digital camera technology, and with his colleague Robert Hills created the first self-contained DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera in 1989. However, Kodak declined to sell the product in order to protect their film sales. The DSLR camera would go on to dominate the digital camera market, and gave consumers both the convenience of shooting digitally, and quality that eventually surpassed that of film. While Kodak’s digital camera patent portfolio earned the company billions of dollars, the company was slow to adopt digital photography and in 2012 filed for bankruptcy.
A Legacy of Innovation
For inventing the digital camera, and revolutionizing the way people communicate with one other, President Barack Obama awarded Sasson the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, and in 2012 the Royal Photographic Society awarded him the prestigious Progress Medal.
Today, Sasson dedicates his time to promoting the importance of creativity and inspiring students to improve the world by creating innovative solutions. His personal story is featured throughout NIHF’s educational programs, and he is an official member of the Innovation Force, a team of NIHF Inductees turned comic superheroes who motivate kids to take risks and pursue their dreams.
To learn more about Steve Sasson, and the story of how he invented the digital camera, we invite you to watch this video!