A conversation with the inventor of the digital camera

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 Steven Sasson and President Obama during the National Medal of Technology and Innovation awards ceremony in the East Room of the White House, Nov. 17, 2010. (Photo courtesy of the Obama White House Archives.)

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.  

6 thoughts on “A conversation with the inventor of the digital camera

  1. Kodak was known for trying to shake things up in the realm of film and cameras. For some reason, the world standard 35mm film was not enough. So Kodak innovated and gave us the 126, 110, disc and APS film formats. None of which compared well to 35mm, though did offer some eatra ease of use. As the story goes, Kodak did not want their digital efforts to compete with their film. Kodak could have offered the best of both worlds simultaneously. Film being the tried and true and affordable option, and digital, the new up and coming more expensive option. Had Kodak gone the parallel route option, as the digital format became better and more affordable, they would have been ready for the eventual end of the popularity of their film.

    I don’t think many people know or care what Kodak is doing these days. I think their only good option is to go back to their roots with photography. One thing that makes Fuji’s current line of cameras popular is their film simulations. Fuji gives the option of shooting in modes such as Velvia or Acros. Kodak could do the same with Kodachrome or Tri-X. Nostalgia sells.

  2. ZAPESOCHNY says: “…breakthrough innovation is so often not a product of planning and intention, but rather of individual curiosity and whimsical happenstance.” I don’t think that gives sufficient weight to the value of real leadership. There are always plenty of good ideas, but there are never enough leaders who are understand the necessity of incubating those ideas and being open to their potential value. George Eastman made sure to invest a substantial research effort in areas that had no immediate commercial payoff. It’s a powerful strategy for remaining relevant, and the placeholder managers who followed him didn’t seem to understand that.

  3. In 1984, Rochester reassessed the city. An RIT professor suggested we make a digital photographic record of all the homes in the city. These were placed on an “inter-active videodisc” and used during the public information sessions and appeals. The work resulted in the first award for technology by the Ford Foundation-Harvard government innovation program. The award and story were taken by city staff to top Kodak executives on Lake Avenue. Kodak’s leadership said this was very impressive work, but “it’s not our business”. Digital photography could not replace the film paper manufacturing business with 20,000 workers. Digital photography went elsewhere.

  4. While Kodak is the obvious example, Xerox also failed to capitalize on its own massive market potential. I refer of course to the Palo Alto Labs innovations in computer/human interaction including the invention of the modern graphical user interface (GUI), the mouse, and other innovations that famously seeded Steve Jobs with the concepts that became Apple (and Microsoft). In Xerox’s case, management was focused on its core copying and printing business and couldn’t or wouldn’t see a business case for these innovations.
    Unfortunately, Rochester has the unfortunate history of missing two massive business opportunities that literally changed the world. I’m hoping these examples serve to remind managers that new ideas may be bigger than quarterly goals.

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