Steven Sasson was a young, recently hired Kodak engineer in 1974 when his boss asked him to choose between two minor projects to work on. Sasson instinctively chose one, and his boss walked away. The entire conversation had taken less than 30 seconds.
About a year later, Sasson’s minor project had become the world’s first digital camera. After successfully taking the first photo on his device (which no one thought to keep), Sasson began demonstrating the camera to colleagues and bosses. In 1978, Kodak was issued a patent for Sasson’s invention.
For most of the world, the invention of digital photography represents an important and thoroughly positive triumph. President Barack Obama awarded Sasson the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2009, and Sasson’s 1975 camera is displayed at the Smithsonian. Yet in Rochester, the rise of digital photography has a more complex legacy.
Shortly before Kodak filed for bankruptcy in 2012, the New York Times described Rochester as “what was once the ultimate company town.” And most national observers agreed that the bankruptcy could be traced to “the former king of photography’s failure to reinvent itself in the digital age.”
Rochester had spent more than 150 years being able to feel good about its collective identity and growth prospects. Beginning in the 1830s – when Rochester became known as the “Young Lion of the West” and later as America’s first “boomtown” – to its 20thcentury reputation as the “Imaging Capital of the World,” much had gone right for Rochester. Now, we were the ultimate company town whose company inexplicably failed to capitalize on its own invention.
Business schools began using case studies about Kodak, positioning it as a definitive cautionary tale of wasted opportunity. Being “like Kodak” took on a negative connotation in business circles, and area entrepreneurs sometimes talked about not wanting to hire former Kodak employees out of concern that they might be out of touch.
Economically and psychologically, the gradual downfall of Kodak was likely the most impactful event experienced by Rochester in the last half century. And even though the word Kodak is less often uttered in local conversations today, its collapse has left a lingering imprint on how Rochesterians feel about our city and its future.
In sitting down with Sasson (see audio clip of our discussion above), I was hoping to learn more about this critical chapter in Rochester history. Yet I came away also being reminded that the invention of digital photography and its aftermath still have many lessons for Rochester today.
For instance, that breakthrough innovation is so often not a product of planning and intention, but rather of individual curiosity and whimsical happenstance. Or that successful companies built to maximize certain strengths frequently find themselves unable to adjust to markets requiring a new set of strengths. Sasson also shares valuable advice for innovators, especially those working at larger organizations.
Kodak’s decline is likely to continue to affect Rochester’s collective psyche for many years to come. But by supporting the broad array of young innovators, university researchers and startups in Rochester today – and recognizing that some of their seemingly minor projects may someday become the basis for giant new industries – we best position ourselves for a more vibrant future. And if nothing else, the story of Kodak also should stand as a reminder to Rochesterians that nothing is forever and big changes are inevitable. So, as unlikely as it may appear to some today, perhaps we can even become a booming “young lion” again.