The first digital image dates back to 1957, while the first digital camera was invented in the 1970’s.
First Digital Image
Russell Kirsch was a scientist at the National Bureau of Standards in the late 1950’s and had access to the only programmable computer in the United States. He and his colleagues sought to find out “what would happen if computers could see the world the way we see it?”
Kirsch assembled a crude image scanner to convert a photo of his infant son into binary code. The result was a 176 x 176 pixel image, which was limited by the memory of the computer he was using.
Although Kirsch was able to create a digital image via scanning, the first digital camera and digital photograph didn’t occur until nearly 20 years later.
First Digital Camera and Photo
In 1961 Jet Propulsion Laboratory employee Eugene F. Lally published a description how to create still digital photos by using a mosaic photosensor. The intended use was to take photos by spacecraft to assist with onboard navigation on missions to planets.
11 years later, Texas Instruments employee Willis Adcock patented a film-less camera in 1972, but there is no evidence that a prototype was ever made. It also required the use of analog technology.
It wasn’t until late 1975, however, that Steve Sasson – who worked as an engineer at Kodak – created the world’s first digital camera. Sasson described the camera in a 2007 blog post (now offline and not archived):
In December of 1975, after a year of piecing together a bunch of new technology in a back lab at the Elmgrove Plant in Rochester, we were ready to try it. “It” being a rather odd-looking collection of digital circuits that we desperately tried to convince ourselves was a portable camera. It had a lens that we took from a used parts bin from the Super 8 movie camera production line downstairs from our little lab on the second floor in Bldg 4. On the side of our portable contraption, we shoehorned in a portable digital cassette instrumentation recorder. Add to that 16 nickel cadmium batteries, a highly temperamental new type of CCD imaging area array, an a/d converter implementation stolen from a digital voltmeter application, several dozen digital and analog circuits all wired together on approximately half a dozen circuit boards, and you have our interpretation of what a portable all electronic still camera might look like.
The camera weighed 8 pounds and recorded images to a cassette tape. Resolution was a modest 0.01 megapixel, and only in black and white. The first photo took 23 seconds to capture, and the cassette had to be moved from the camera to a playback device to show images on a television set.
Although it hasn’t been expressly stated what the first photo was, it is clear that an image of a boy and a dog was used for demonstrations. That was apparently a digital capture of an existing photograph, shown side by side below.
When the “film-less camera” was shown in demonstrations in 1976, audiences seemed confused about the technology. Sasson writes:
After taking a few pictures of the attendees at the meeting and displaying them on the TV set in the room, the questions started coming. Why would anyone ever want to view his or her pictures on a TV? How would you store these images? What does an electronic photo album look like? When would this type of approach be available to the consumer? Although we attempted to address the last question by applying Moore’s law to our architecture (15 to 20 years to reach the consumer), we had no idea how to answer these or the many other challenges that were suggested by this approach.
First Consumer Digital Cameras
Fuji demonstrated the DS-1p in Germany back in 1988, although this device was not marketed. It included a 2 megabyte memory card and held 5 to 10 photos.
In 1990, the first digital camera to reach the mainstream consumer market arrived with the Dycam Model 1 (also known as the Logitech Photoman). It was a rather expensive device at $600, and sported a lowly grayscale 376×240 pixel resolution. There was also no preview screen as later cameras included. The camera didn’t fare well in the marketplace, although it did gain the attention of the media, as seen in the CNN segment “Future Watch” below.
The first digital image was a crude scan of an infant by Russell Kirsch in 1957. The first digital camera and digital photo were created by Steve Sasson at Kodak in 1975. It wasn’t until 1990 that digital cameras were marketed in the U.S., although it was still several years before the technology caught on and eventually replaced film cameras for most consumers.