May 13, 2021

Inventing Digital Photography at Kodak with Steven Sasson | Partnering Leadership Global Thought Leader

Inventing Digital Photography at Kodak with Steven Sasson | Partnering Leadership Global Thought Leader

In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with Steven Sasson who invented the digital camera while working at Kodak, earning him The National Medal of Technology and Innovation award. Steven Sasson shares the story of how digital photography came to be, the many inventions that made it more accessible to eventually take the place of film photography.  Steven Sasson also talks about the support for the invention at Kodak and the many cultural and leadership challenges that got in the way of Kodak taking full advantage of the technology.  

Some highlights:

  • Steven Sasson’s love for tinkering with technology
  • Why Steven Sasson chose to work at Kodak
  • Conceptualizing and envisioning the first handheld electronic camera
  • The first image taken with the first prototype of the portable digital camera
  • Kodak’s initial reaction to Steven Sasson’s invention and questions for the future of digital technology
  • How the support and belief of Steven Sasson’s supervisor motivated him to push his idea forward despite doubts from Kodak executives
  • Why Steven Sasson’s project was kept secret by Kodak for many years
  • The story behind ECAM, the first operational DSLR camera 
  • The story behind QuickTake 100, Kodak’s collaboration with Apple 
  • Cultural and leadership challenges preventing Kodak from being able to take full advantage of digital photography
  • How internal struggles, and short-sighted decisions impacted Kodak
  • Steven Sasson’s experience receiving The National Medal of Technology and Innovation award from President Barack Obama in 2009


Don Reinertsen, author

Gareth Lloyd, former supervisor at Kodak

Jim Sheckler, former technician at Kodak

Gilda Radner, actress and comedian

Joy Marshall, former laboratory technician at Kodak

Steve Jobs, co-founder and former chairman and CEO of Apple

Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple

Dr. Majid Rabbani, former fellow at Kodak

Dr. Brad Paxton, former director at Kodak

Robert Hills, co-inventor of the first DSLR camera

Jim McGarvey, former lead engineer at Kodak

George M. C. Fisher, former CEO of Kodak

Daniel Allen Carp, former chairman and CEO of Kodak

Antonio M. Pérez, former CEO of Kodak

Barack Obama, 44th U.S. President

Pete Souza, former Chief Official White House Photographer

Connect with Steven Sasson:

Steven Sasson on LinkedIn

Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:

More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website:


Mahan Tavakoli: 

Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm really excited this week to be welcoming Steven Sasson Steven's invention is something that is used all around the globe every minute of every day. Now, if you haven't heard that name, you might be wondering what is it that Steve Sasson invented? He invented digital cameras.

Yes. Back at Eastman Kodak, in 1975 at the young age of 25. Steve invented a digital camera, which weighed eight pounds and had a resolution of 0.01 megapixels. He eventually had to invent the screen that could display it, ended up inventing DSLR camera and working on that with his colleagues at Eastman Kodak.

So many more inventions and obviously much success and some frustration at Eastman Kodak, which was once known for innovating and pioneering photography. But an organization that was also destroyed, partly because of digital photography. I find a lot of people use the Kodak example without fully understanding the intricacies of all of these things. They think Kodak and their executives were asleep at the switch. Well, not exactly. They invented digital photography. They invested highly in it, but there was a lot more complexity to the story, which is what you will learn by listening to Steve Sasson. 

Steve has won many awards, including in November, 2009. US President Barack Obama awarded Steve Sasson, the national medal of technology and innovation at a ceremony in the East room of the white house. This is the highest honor awarded by the US government to scientists, engineers, and innovators. And obviously Steve is a scientist, engineer, and innovator. He was also inducted into the national inventors hall of fame in 2011.

 I thoroughly enjoyed this conversation. Found out a lot of new things about digital photography and its innovation and evolution over the years, and also the challenges that Kodak and Kodak executives face as they saw this digital photography boom taking over.

Now, I also love hearing from you. So keep your comments coming. mahan@mahantavakoli.Com there's a microphone icon on partnering You can leave voice messages for me there. 

Don't forget to follow the podcast. All that does it will ensure that you will be first to be notified of new releases of these episodes.

And finally, those of you that enjoy these conversations on Apple, please leave a rating and review when you get a chance. That way more people will find these conversations. 

Now here's my conversation with Steven Sasson.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Steve Sasson. Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I am absolutely honored and thrilled to have you in this conversation with me. 

Steve Sasson: 

Thanks for inviting me. This has been a very nice opportunity to talk about some of the history behind the development of digital photography. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

You've had a significant impact as I was mentioning to you on so many people's lives.

If we really reflect on it, Steve, all across the globe from Sub-Saharan Africa to Latin America, to asia at any moment and time, there are many people capturing moments in their lifetimes because of your invention. Do you ever reflect on the significance of what you did? , 

Steve Sasson: 

I must say I don't spend a lot of time thinking about that. I think back about, how it all started and it started in a very small little room and we started working on it because it was an interesting problem to try to solve. I would have never imagined even in my lifetime that we would have made so much progress on a difficult problem that we started on trying to solve in the 1970s such that it would be so ubiquitous as you just indicated. So I'm surprised as anybody about how far this has come from those first experiments. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

So Steve, you grew up in Brooklyn and it sounds like you love tinkering with technology even as little kid. 

Steve Sasson: 

Oh yes, I did, I grew up in the Brooklyn, the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn and middle-class family lived in a row house in Brooklyn. And I just got interested in science. I had a next door neighbor. His name was Don Reinertsen who's a noted author on technology and development. He and I started to get interested in different things. We started with chemistry actually but chemistry get us into trouble because we kept blowing things up. Smoke bombs, thermite things. So that turned out to be a bit of an issue. If we had tried doing that today, we would have been arrested I'm sure. But then we gradually got into electronics and that was a little bit tamer. And you know, it held a big fascination for me. And I was very much the subject of my times.

This is the time when the space race was starting to take off. And I just love the idea of action at a distance radio stuff like that. I became a ham radio operator. I put up an antenna on our little roof in our row house and started transmitting and completely knocked out all the television sets in the whole area. That kind of thing. Played with building radios and stereos. And I used to get all my parts, one of the advantages of living in Brooklyn is it's a very dense obviously. And so people used to put their excess or surplus or garbage electronics, all TVs and radios mainly out on the curb to be picked up on a certain day. And I would wander the neighborhood and pick up these very valuable carcasses and drag them back. And I would do these autopsies to pull off all the parts. 

My parents weren't too happy with that. Cause I'd held these chassies piled up in the basement but that's where I got all my parts and then the parts I didn't get from there, I used to go down to place called radio row. And if any of your listeners are from New York city, they'll remember the old surplus military radio road down in lower Manhattan. And I used to go down there and these street and that area  and buy the parts that I couldn't get off of the consumer electronics. Usually they were more dangerous parts like giant capacitors and things like that.

And so that's kind of how I started is I started scrounging things to build ideas that I have and sometimes they came from magazine articles. Sometimes they came from library books that showed me the circuitry, and I would try to simulate those. And in the process of doing that started to learn some fundamentals of electronics and electron tubes and things like that. So this is how I got very excited about electronics and also got in the habit of building things that were thoughts that I had. 

So I've had a thought, the way I expressed it was to build it.  And to go down to the basement and find the parts necessary to build the idea. So those, two things came together for me much later when I was at Kodak where I kind of did the same thing in terms of implementing the idea around digital photography. So it's funny how your childhood goes directly on. You never really leave it. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Yeah. And you got a chance to play on with that childhood for your education. When you went to graduate school, you continued your studies and tinkering with these things. Obviously Kodak was a significant organization, both with respect to technology and other aspects, why did you choose to work at Kodak? 

Steve Sasson:  

That's a really good question because it wasn't the obvious place for a person interested in electronics to go. Kodak was a very famous and well known company for photographic materials and equipment, but not really known for electronics as such. And I interviewed at a number of places that were more traditional, like Hewlett Packard and Raytheon and things like that. But at that time, which was, I was graduating with master's degree in 1973. The space race was sort of going down in terms of public enthusiasm, I would say. And also a lot of defense department standing was starting to level out. 

If it had been a few years before, you would have never even thought about Kodak. But it turns out that Kodak I interviewed there and they had a very good reputation as an employer. But it turns out that they were starting to hire electronics people because the electrical and electronic component costs of most of the photographic equipment they were generating now was becoming the dominant position or dominant amount in cameras. Cameras, which were mechanical marvels for a hundred years. Mechanical shutters, mechanical film, advanced things like that. All of a sudden it was electronic shutters, electronic flashes, electronic film advance. And so, in the first group of real electrical engineers they started to hire. And so I saw that as kind of an opportunity. And when I interviewed there I interviewed as most big companies have many divisions, I interviewed in a number of divisions and the one division that really attracted me was this place called the apparatus division research laboratory. 

Kodak was divided into two really big sections. The first section was obviously photographic, film and paper where they manufactured that, and then the second big division was the apparatus division where they made all the equipment that utilized. Paper, film cameras, projectors, printers, things like that. And it was the research arm of that division that I interviewed. And they had this wonderful group of people and they had different groups. A math group of physics group of materials, group, and electronics group. It was this interdisciplinary mix that really attracted me and their charter was quite interesting. Basically, it was kind of an open-ended charter. It was to solve problems, come up with ideas about anything associated with supporting the mission of the division, which was to make equipment that utilize the materials.

So it was an odd choice, perhaps when you think about it, but at the time, it kind of had an attraction that let's say Raytheon and Hewlett Packard didn't necessarily have. They had tons of electrical engineers and I would just be another person there. This one was, it seemed a little bit more interesting so that's where I ended up. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

So that gave you the opportunity to continue your tinkering. But why specifically with cameras? 

I also read that in the shower you would tell yourself, why did I say I was going to build the stupid camera because you weren't to be able to do it? So why did you want to build an electronic camera? 

Steve Sasson: 

Well, you've done your research. That's exactly right. 

My supervisor, Gareth Lloyd who was just a peach of a guy. And I know you talk a lot about leadership and once you get exposed to a good leader, you're infected for life.  He was a good leader. He walked in one day and he said to me, I had done one or two projects involving digital technology. So I learned a little bit right away about it, and he came in one day and he said to me I've got two projects, sort of filler projects till something more useful comes along. One is to do modeling of exposure controls for XL movie cameras. And the other is to look at this new type of device called the charge couple device imager.

Now I was jumped right away at the charge couple device opportunity because in college, I had become very interested in how light effected Silicon. There was sort of a romance to me about I could use light to control the flow of electrons. I built my master's thesis which was a whole thing. I built with parts and it was with light controlling Silicon controlled rectifiers in a motor application. And so I was sort of predisposed to this whole light doing something cool. Right? So I jumped at that conversation. Probably lasted about 45 seconds. I remember it even to this day, he was leaning against the file cabinet next to my desk. And I said, I'll take that. I'll do that. He says, "Well, okay, why don't you order one or two of those and see if you can do anything useful with it."

That was it. So I started thinking about, okay, I have to get this device and figure out how it works. And no one had done this at the company before. So I had nobody to ask and then I figured if I'm going to measure its performance, it would be nice to turn it into numbers. So why don't I digitize the output, which typically you might filter this though the application notes, has you filtering it into an analog wave form. I instead digitized it and I said, well, if I'm going to measure it, it's going to come out very fast. So I'd probably go store it. And so I was storing a digitized version of the optical pattern that was incident upon the surface of the device. Kind of like what film does. 

And so then I thought I'm really building sort of an electronic camera, what a cool idea. And then I thought, because I was surrounded by a lot of mechanical engineers, I thought I'd try to build a camera with no moving parts whatsoever. Now that was just the Brooklyn in me doing something to aggravate people, I think. But it was just a challenge. 

So I told Gareth about it and he said, "Oh, okay, cool."  And then I started to play around with this. And had the help of two really talented technicians during this project. And they worked with me in the lab. That one particular Jim Sheckler worked with me for most of this time. And we just went from A to B to C trying to get this thing to work and took almost a year or so. 

It was just a labor of love. I can tell you. But want to go back to that little story that you unearthed about my thought, because I did do that. This was right around the time that Saturday Night Live was starting and there was young comedian Gilda Radner. She had this character that would go on and go on at great length about how she thought something was so true. And then when she was corrected in terms of mishearing one critical word associated with her whole litany of stuff she just went through, she would just say, "Oh, okay, nevermind." And I thought , I'm going to have to go into Gareth and say, " Nevermind!", because this thing will never work. So that's what I used to think about sometimes in the shower.

 I used to say, whatever gave me the thought that I could go and build an entire-- this wasn't just a camera. I also was going to build something to look at the picture on a television set. So it was an entire photographic system based completely on digital technology with completely replacing film and paper. Where, where you get off doing something like this? So that's how that all started.

But luckily I was in a very supportive environment. My supervisor, as I mentioned, Gareth Lloyd was just a very supportive person that recognize that we were trying something really white space here. He gave me a lot of, a lot of room. And basically nobody knew what I was doing.  I'll put it this way. The only person I talk to on a regular basis about the project when I had every other week, you'd have a sit-down with your supervisor, And I would mention about the camera, how it was going and all that kind of thing. And he'd shake his head and say, "Yeah, great." And then when it was actually working in December of 1975, I was very excited and came in and I told him, and I never forget what he told me. He says, "Well, we'll bring people into the lab and show it to them. And I said, "No, it's portable." He didn't even know I was building a portable camera.

 There wasn't a lot of discussion about it. And by the way, I probably wouldn't have encouraged in any way, because the more somebody knew about what I was trying to do, the more they would know how much I failed when I failed to reach it. So I suppose I was probably didn't support that either, but anyway, that's kind of how it unfolded in that way.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

So Steve that first time when you realized that you can actually take a picture with this thing that you have created, which was eight pounds. So it's big, but small enough that it can be carried around. When was it? And did you have goosebumps seeing that, oh my God, it can capture images electronically.

Steve Sasson:  

Yes, we built this thing and like I said, it took approximately a year. I don't remember exactly when I started, but I do remember the day we took the picture and it was about a year or so. And that whole time I was just struggling with all these different modalities of electronics. I was dealing with this very strange CCD device, which was really weird. And then I was dealing with a lot of analog electronics in terms of power supplies and some of the analog processing I had to do coming off the CCD. And then the digital electronics and then a microprocessor, which was also brand new at the time. So I was sort of melding all these technologies that have never been really worked together before, as far as I can tell.

And so we were going piece by piece and we never saw anything until the entire thing was done. So think about this. It was an imaging system that you had to see if each piece was working by measurements. By a silver scope, traces or voltage measurements. But you couldn't see anything. Okay? There was no seeing anything. And yet that was the whole object, right? So it wasn't until in December of 1975, when we had completed the camera and we had measured the bits going on the tape, and then we had built this playback system and we had seen how we could test pattern and maybe it could show up on the screen. So finally, one day, I think Jim suggested, we should just take a picture, which might seem obvious, but just didn't occur to us before then. Right? Cause you're working on all these different things. 

And so the first picture is an interesting story too. Shows you how you can do silly things. It's funny looking back on it, I picked up the camera and we went out back lab, which was poorly lit and also, nothing scenic in there. And I walked out the hallway and down the hallway there was a young lab technician. Her name was Joy Marshall, and she was sitting at a teletype and she knew who was this the crazy people at the end of the hallway? And I said, "Can I take a head and shoulders shot of you?" And she saw me holding this thing, which was a really weird looking contraption. And she said, "Okay." So I did, I took a shot and the exposure was 50 milliseconds and the image was captured in 50 milliseconds, but it was captured to an onboard digital memory. And then from that, it was read to a slower, more permanent form of memory, which was the magnetic tape, which was a little Phillips cassette. And the Phillips cassette started to move. So that's how I knew I had a picture coming together. 

And so I walked back to the lab and pop the picture tape out, put it into the playback unit and did sort of the opposite. It reassembled the whole picture. And then we had to assemble it into a format that was suitable for television screen. And it took about 30 seconds to do all of that. It was all microprocessor programming, which we had never done before either.  And then up popped the picture and the first picture, you could see her face, she had dark hair and she was against the light background. So you could see the light background, you could see the dark hair, but her face was complete static. Totally unrecognizable. 

Now, Jim and I were thrilled at what we saw. Absolutely thrilled because we knew a thousand reasons why you might not see anything at all. Well, that's what we were expecting. The fact that everything was lined up and the pixels were in the right place was terrific. , 

Joy had followed me back and she was standing at the entranceway to the lab and she saw what came up on the screen. And then we turned around, we saw Joy and she just looked at us and said, "It needs work." And walked out.

And what I had done when I had, I signed the playback unit. They were done at different times and I had just reversed the order of the bits. So each pixel was digitized to a four bit word which was enough to get to somewhat of a gray scale impression. And when I designed the playback system, I put the most significant bit first  on the serial recording and then the next, most significant bit, right down to the least significant bit.

But when I designed the playback unit, I just reversed the order in my mind. So what that means is if you have all zeroes, which would indicate a dark tone, a black or all ones, if it was a very light tone. Well, it didn't make any difference with the order was. So that's why the hair and the face was okay. But anything that was in the gray scale area was completely messed up. And that's why it looked like that. We figured that out and I changed some wires and that was our first picture. And that was around December, I think about December 9th 1975, 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

But I can see Steve as this is a great invention on one level, on the other side, it's an eight pound contraption that at that point was 0.01 megapixels black and white image where people would look at it, look at this at Kodak internally and say, who would ever really want this? 

So what was the initial presentations like, as you had to communicate this new invention internally, both with your supervisor and then on up?  

Steve Sasson: 

Yeah, you hit the nail on the head. 

Once this was working, Gareth suggested that we start showing it to people. Now, when you're, in a large organization, like Eastman Kodak company, and I think this is probably a common issue with any big company, is you sorta work with the level of management that you're comfortable with. And then once they get comfortable with it, then they show it to their bosses and bosses. So it goes up level by level. 

The demonstration that I put together was pretty much the same, no matter what it was. There was a conference room about 50 feet down the hallway from my lab. It was a windowless conference room long, long and thin, could hold about 12 to 15 people, long tables down the middle. What would happen is Gareth would invite, well, he would ask me to send out and an invitation to the people that he indicated we should send it out to. Remember I'm a 25 year old kid. Nobody knows who I am.  

And so I would put together the meeting invitation. He would tell me who to send it to. And I entitled the meeting, I said demonstration of filmless photography, which was a really bad choice of titles given the audience I was talking to. But I didn't think about that much. I had zero experience with this. 

And so they would gather in the room and I would wait until they were there. And then I would fold up my camera. My camera, it looks like an odd thing, but because it would unfold and that was the prototype basis. We built everything right there. So I just folded it up at the last minute. So it would look like this thing that I could carry. I would walk into the room and I would take whoever was sitting on the right side, right in the front, I would take a head and shoulders shot of them right away. 

And then while the tape was recording, it took 23 seconds to record this tape to the tape. I would describe what this thing was because  nobody had ever seen anything quite like this before. So I had to describe it. Also to cleverly hide the fact that it took me 23 seconds to take the picture.

Then I would walk over to the person on the left side and take a head and shoulder shot of them. So I would take two pictures. And after the tape had stopped after recording the second picture, I would remove that tape, hand it to Jim. And Jim had brought the playback unit and the television shack which we had stolen from another lab on a cart. And we would plug the thing, put tape in there. And after about 30 seconds up would pop the picture. So that was the demonstration. 

Now I had a lot of slides, but I never got through any of them because the managers, they got to give you their opinion right away. And they did.  It was really interesting. I will say that we had probably the first in-depth discussions of what digital photography would be like or the challenges that it would face or what its eventual form might be like during those series of meetings that took place in the spring of 1976.

First I was challenged,  you were challenged about certainly the quality. Nobody challenged that it would work because obviously there are pictures staring at them that I just took. So it was a functional system. It was just black and white. It was quite recognizable. And, that, wasn't the issue, the issue really and I thought that he would ask me how I got all this technology to work because I had spent the last year just figuring out any possible way to get all this analog and digital stuff to work in this small environment with this crazy CCD and all this lens assembly that I had stolen from XL movie cameras and think how did I do this? And they didn't ask me any of that. They didn't ask me how, they asked me why. The question you asked. Why would anybody want to take their pictures this way? I hadn't really thought about that too much. I just thought it was a kind of a cool concept. The concept that as it rested in my mind was I could take pictures and I didn't consume anything. I would only consume a few joules of energy. That was my idea. I just take still pictures and only consume some energy. 

Now the pushback obviously was on all fronts, right? Image quality.  Why would anybody want to look at their picture on a television set?  Prints had been way of looking at photographs for almost a hundred years. So why would someone  look at a TV set? Right. , what would electronic photo album look like? There was no personal computers at the time. So, it was basically putting down this whole new way of doing thing in an environment that didn't support it at all. In addition to an experiential base, didn't support it at all. 

And the other thing that went against the grain a bit was the fact that this was completely digital. This was a completely digital implementation. That worked against me as well. Now, today everything's digital, right? But back then I was suggesting this as a replacement for consumer photography. There was no shortage of things that were wrong with me in this presentation.

And I suggested this and they said, " What consumer product is based on digital technology.?" So not only what I was proposing was weird. How I accomplished it was also very alien. Digital had a bad reputation, complicated, expensive. Nobody really understood it. No consumer products utilized it so that worked against me as well.

So what I ended up doing is using a lot of analogies. In other words, you can't prove anything. So just look at something that might maybe be a little bit like it and then ask them to use their imagination on that since they don't want to use the imagination of what's in front of them. I suggested the HP calculator, which has really just come out and engineers were buying those things if you can stretch the definition of average consumer to include engineers. I said it could be a calculator with a lens that was a consumer product that was digital, and it would have an optical system as part of it. That was my idea of the camera. 

And the playback system was also something strange. It was a microprocessor doing microprocessing of images. And so they said, how is that going to work for an average person? And at the time, Jobs and Wozniak we're launching their app, their first Apple board. And remember how computing started it was the hobbyists. And what Wozniak had done is built a board that basically took all the electronics and put it into one component. And then you would go and buy the power supply and monitor and keyboard and all that thing to put together and make your computer. And so I had gotten interested in this board, not for this reason, but because Wozniak had actually use the drams that I had used and I thought, well, maybe I could use that as a playback unit, even though I couldn't because the architecture he used would be incompatible with the very fast input rate I had to have to capture the image. But , you're desperate. So I said, well, maybe this computer board out here. And I remember you can carry analogies too far. There was a, fellow from consumer imaging marketing who was in one of our meetings and he said, "How much for  one of those calculators?" And I said, "About $400" and "How much for the board from the California guys?" "It was about $600-700" And he said, "So for about $1,100, you can take way worse pictures than a fully loaded Instamatic for $35. Why are we talking about this?" 

 I didn't have an answer. And so I was totally unprepared for the breadth of reaction for this. I wasn't prepared for it. However, Gareth allowed me to make the presentation to every level of management. Even though I'm sure he got a couple of comments afterwards from managers, like, why are you letting this kid walking around doing this stuff? But he did that. He let me do that. He'd come in and coach me on how to make better presentations and things like that. But he always let me do that. And  I admired him. You don't realize it at the time,  but years later you realize what other people did for you.

 And that was one of the things he allowed me to present this concept all the way up to the president of the whole apparatus division. He came in one night, he saw the picture, I took a picture of him. He saw it, he came all by himself. You know, he was going to be in a room with anybody else. I didn't hear him say this directly, but Gareth Lloyd, he's since passed away, but his wife told me this story, Gareth came home that evening and as he walked the vice president out of Kodak, he asked, "Should we keep working on this?" And he looked at him back at Gareth and said, "Yes. Yeah, you should keep working on it. And I hope you fail." And he walked out. 

So anybody thinks that Kodak management didn't get it. They even saw it in this crudest of demonstrations in 1976. They saw it  as a potential disruptor. So that's kinda how the discussions went. And how woefully unprepared 25 year old inventor type God, his initiation in terms of trying to interest people in some new ideas.  

Mahan Tavakoli: 

What an incredible story, just in that episode, Steve. Obviously a 25 year old inventor that was given an opportunity and support and the tackling that it takes by Gareth for you to be able to make these presentations. But also a lot of times it's pretty simple for us to make things black and white, especially with 2020 hindsight saying Kodak missed the opportunity here. You were presenting filmless camera to a company that had  90 plus percent of the film market in the us 85 plus percent camera. And in essence, it was a razor and blade strategy. The margins were with the film. So they were still supporting you in developing this thing that would potentially kill the business, but it does make it really hard. What do you do then?

 Now as you have this. You see the future, but how do you decide from there?

 Also. I know in 1987, you built a transceiver which CBS had bought, they covered Tiananmen Square in China, but Kodak didn't want anyone to know about that experience either. 

Steve Sasson: 

Yeah. And after the 1976 prototype camera demonstrations,  we applied for a patent, we got a patent, then it was promptly told, never to talk about this to anybody. And I didn't. It wasn't any public acknowledgement of the story I just told you until the year 2001. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

So just to that point, Steve, were they hoping no one else would get there either? Or were they hoping that it would delay other people landing a digital photography? 

Steve Sasson: 

The only time I got calls was when the patent was issued, it became public obviously and suddenly I saw Eastman Kodak filmless photography. What's Kodak doing there? So they found my name. They would call me up. And I, of course I was told, send them to the public relations department. So that's what I did. But we work continuously on this idea. The reason Kodak was very quiet about this and all of the other subsequent research. It's certainly, this was just the beginning.

There were lots of people that got involved, really smart people that got involved with this and were working on all aspects of this all throughout the 1980s. But none of it was really made public for the same reason. And that was if Kodak, which was, as you indicated, the dominant force in the photographic field. If they were started to talk about something that didn't involve film, people were going to really believe them because this was Kodak. And quite frankly, digital imaging of this type I have a lot of issues. It was never going to be as good as film in the 1980s. That's for sure. If the resolution had to go higher, reliability, all of the things that we had sort of take for granted with film photography, we forget that that film camera that we held in our hands in 1975 was as a result of a hundred years of development. So that same level of intensity had to take place in this whole new technology. And so they didn't want to get people excited about something that wasn't close to being perfect as Kodak was interested in making very good images for everybody. So that's kind of why they were very quiet about it, in my opinion.

If you started talking about something that Kodak was working on, if other people talked about it and they did. Sony and Canon started doing something in the eighties, that was one thing. But what does Kodak think? Because they're the people that really know this business. And so that's why Kodak kept really quiet about it. And the only time in the eighties, they actually went public with anything was to tamp down the idea that Kodak was somehow missing this boat. We weren't missing it. We were working on it, but I'll tell you it's not ready. That's kind of the attitude that they were getting across. 

Now, you mentioned the transceiver. The transceiver was a perfect example of how the problem digital photography had to be bifurcated in many different dimensions in order to be totally solved. All my prototype at the beginning was identify a thousand questions. And all those questions had to be answered. Some of which Kodak knew a lot about, cause we knew a lot about the problem of how to make a good image. We knew a lot about that. But we certainly didn't know a lot about electronics or had the capability there. And nobody really knew how to make charge a couple of devices or imaging chips of the size and density that you would need to rival that  of silver halide print. So we started working on all those things and one of the problems was image compression. 

And so image compression, that is the idea. After you capture a two dimensional mosaic of photo sites and you digitize it, do you really have to store all that information or is a lot of it redundant? That is, it doesn't really contain any information. And it's true. We've studied images. We know that about 80% of it on a typical 3 or 4R print , was basically you don't really see it. And so why carry all that information? Because we knew we had to get into millions of pixels in order to get to a reasonable photograph quality. Well, you have to store that digitally. That was going to cost a lot of money and take up a lot of power. And so could we get rid of it?

So we started looking at image compression and fortunately we had experts in image compression at Eastman Kodak company. That's the great thing about Kodak. We had anything to do with imaging. We had some of the world's best people on any subject. Dr. Majid Rabbani started hooking up with him and there was many different ways people were thinking about doing image compression. And I asked him, I said, we're thinking about doing a device that would get rid of the image compression, put it in an actual product. Not a laboratory where you do image compression on a big computer, but actually do it in a product and send it over a telephone line and then send it in a reasonable amount of time. And that might be a useful thing. But I really wanted to get image compression out of the lab, but I didn't know what type of image compression to do. You know something he knew right away. It has to be based on discrete co-sign transformed. He said the world will decide that they just haven't figured it out yet. 

One, he was right. And two, it was really hard. So, I hate it when the right answer is hard but we started working on that and I went down to Texas instruments and gave a lecture on image compression because I wanted to find a guy who actually knew the graphics chips  and I showed them images and they were amazed at what they saw. I say I took away 80% of the bits and they couldn't tell the difference.  But I can't do it fast enough in a real product. And so we found the guy who actually did the chip we wanted to use and he knew how to make it run faster and all these kinds of tricks we took place. I knew he put this product out and went out on the market and I will tell you it's the first time that any of the technology that we were working on, sort of showed up in the real world, but very hidden.

 It was in a transceiver that nobody wanted and nobody really wanted to use it. And I didn't really care. I just wanted to see if we could really do this, get all this high tech, high computational power into a consumer product. Well, that's about the size of a VCR in the consumer, but it was cool. It would send pretty good image of NTSC over a telephone line at 9,600 bits per second  in less than a minute. That was the goal. We met the goal. Put it out. I said great, because we were thinking about a camera next, right? This was the stepping stone. Well, it turns out I literally, I came in one day and they said, "Hey, come over to the lab. Look at this." And they showed me, Tiananmen Square was happening in 1989 and CBS news had used one of these to get pictures out. And they were the only people to get pictures out because all the conventional ways of transporting film were shut down by the government. But nobody knew that this existed and CBS news got excited and they did a story on it.

And then I had found out the background to this story was they came to Kodak and said, "This was fantastic. We want to do a story on your product." And our management said, "No, don't do that because you'll really upset the photographers. They'll feel like we did an end run around them. , Anybody who took digital photography, you could send it, use this thing and send it. And so they're going to be really mad at us. We don't want that."

 So you have a national news organization wanting to do a national story about your product. And the answer is no. This is kind of where we were on this stuff. It turns out we had a really, really another great leader. His name was Dr. Brad Paxton and he headed up the electronic photography division. And he, in addition to be a superb technologist, he was also a very good politician and a good networker. And he talked them in to letting them do the story. He said, "We won't mention Kodak at all. ,We won't say anything about Kodak. Won't mention the product name." " Oh, okay. If you don't do that, that would be fine." But it turns out obviously Kodak showed up on the splash screen. They called it the magic box in the story. That's fine. You could see the image pop up there. It said Kodak right on there. So we got the message out. I'm sure Brad got in some trouble for that. 

But anyway, that's how it got out. But that's kind of an example of a stepping stone in a long trail of a technological innovation. Where a stepping stone sort of leaks out and pops his head up and said, "Hey, I'm coming." 

And it was two years after that we built what we call the ECAM, which was a DSLR using this same image compression and memory cards. And we were working with Jen on it at the time. And If I showed you the camera, it looked just like a Nikon or Canon DSLR today without the screen on the back. And it was operational on 1989.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And so Steve, obviously, the great work that everyone at Eastman Kodak did contributed to a lot of different technology, a lot of patents. And I understand that even Apple's first camera, the QuickTake 100 was designed and built by Kodak. Although Kodak didn't really want anyone to know that they both did.

 Steve Sasson: 

That's a good example of the technology was progressing so far inside of Kodak that Apple came to us. And if you remember the early days in the early nineties or so Apple was considered the imaging computer.  If you worked in images, you use an Apple computer. And they wanted an on-ramp for images. And so they thought, could we get one of these digital cameras, which we know are coming. And who do you go to? Kodak.  

Well, Kodak had the capability to design the camera. We just didn't want anybody to know that we designed the camera. So the fellow who was the chief project leader on that told me this story, that the management was okay with us designing and building a camera for Apple, but he couldn't say anything about Kodak being on it. And it couldn't even look like a a real camera. So that that first Apple QuickTake 100, it looks like a pair of binoculars. You'll notice it doesn't look like a camera cause it can't look like a real camera. So you can really see, we were really paranoid at letting the world know that we knew a lot about this.

And so that's a true story, but Kodak spent a lot of money in time patenting a lot of the concepts around digital photography. You have to realize that when you're approaching something like this, we knew a lot about the problem to be solved, that is making really good steel images electronically.

Now, a lot of the electronics company knew a lot about the tools that it would be necessary to implement to do this, but they didn't know what problem they were solving really that well. So they often thought that very low resolution video style type cameras would work. We knew that would never work. You can't replace a technology with something worse and say it's better.  We knew that. So we knew a lot about it. So we started defining the architecture behind cameras and printers and systems. We had a very active and very powerful intellectual property department and we patent filed a lot of patents. So we had a digital imaging portfolio of patents. 

Now, traditionally Kodak was a very photographic industry, when it came to silver halide. It was a very polite photographic, it was a very polite industry. We didn't sue each other.  Fuji and Kodak were in suing each other all the time. We weren't in court all the time. We settled any arguments we had out of court because we know the only people that benefited there with the lawyers. 

 So basically when we got into the world of digital imaging, which is in the late nineties, the electronic companies came from a totally different world. They sued each other all the time. And so they came to Kodak and said, "Hey, you owe us money because we have patents that define digital cameras." Well, turns out. We had the patents. They didn't. Literally, they came on Monday and told us this. And by Friday they were writing us checks. I mean, it was that kind of a thing. 

So we started a very intense effort in defining our intellectual property portfolio. We selected a bunch of patents and we started to assert them, which culturally wasn't very comfortable for Kodak. We had to form a whole new division for this or a new group of people to do this. And so we started doing that. I was involved with this actually because one of my patents, there were four of the key patents they through with them. And one of them was mine. And mine and Bob Hill's, the ECAM patent. I was involved with it. And also they asked me because I was a project manager. I had managed the big projects. They thought, well, you manage the patent litigation going forward. So I moved in and lived with lawyers and licensing experts, which was a whole different experience worthy of a book all by itself.

But in any case, this went on and I ended up testifying and all this kind of stuff, but I really got to see the breadth and the power of the intellectual property portfolio. So it turns out that over the early two thousands or so just about every camera manufacturer, every cell phone manufacturer that I know of has licensed the intellectual property that Kodak put together in terms of defining some of the fundamental architectures behind digital cameras and printers and those kinds of things.

And that was because we had spent the previous 15 years or so doing what we kind of did best, which was researched the fundamental problem, suggest a solution and implement it. We didn't tell anybody about it, but we certainly recorded the intellectual property on it. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And that's the point Steve, that I think it became more of an organizational issue where the invention and the improvements had been consistent all throughout.

At that point, it seemed like the executives at Kodak were seeing the writing on the wall, but the challenge was replacing what was a very profitable technology.  I think you even made presentations to the marketing group and in essence, they would say,  why would we sell this because it goes against what we are making money from?

Steve Sasson: 

Exactly right. The technology was advancing, but the business model wasn't there, or at least the business model that could compete with the one we already had. I mean, let's face it, photographic film I hope it's not a surprise to anybody. It was one of the most profitable products, mass consumer products ever devised by man. It had a very large barrier to entry. It was hard to do so very few people could get in it. It was extremely profitable once you've capitalized. All of your initial manufacturing costs. And so , if you're going to go and replace that with something where there is no recurring revenue stream, where you have educational and reliability problems, and then of course, the whole printing aspect of this might not be as well.

 The business model wasn't there. It was basically really cool ideas,  but show me the money? I think that's what struggled with. We did have some cultural problems as well.  The idea of image compression, for example, there was no analogy to that with photographic film when you took a picture, what was resident on the negative stayed there. And you had every single photon that was recorded was still there and its impact was there. You could extract it if you want it to work hard enough. 

In the case of digital, we were suggesting, well, we're going to capture all this information, but we're going to throw away 80% of kind of what we captured because you can't see it anyway. They weren't comfortable with that at all.  You won't do that with my pictures. Right? So this idea of just, It was a cultural thing more than technical one. And so on the first early cameras that Jim McGarvey and his great team that took over the commercialization  of DSLRs and professional cameras in the early nineties. One the first things they had to do was put a switch on their cameras to shut off the compression, if you wanted to do real photography.

So these are kinds of things that you've come across that are not technical. But they're based in the culture and the history of the company. What made you great to that point maybe no longer is an asset to you. It's just an example of that. But you're right. There was a lot of pushback on this whole business model.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And that's the challenge that I would love to get some of your thoughts and perspective on, Steve. In that the, again, even by 2005, Kodak was the leading digital camera producer in the world, but images became dematerialized. People didn't want to print their images anymore. So the whole concept continually changed and shifted. New companies are encouraged to challenge existing business models, right? They're rewarded whether it's the Amazons or the Teslas of the world, but the established companies have pressures to maintain status quo.

There are shareholders that are getting money because film is being sold. The board is holding the CEO accountable for that. There are team members that have been hired because of their capability on film while the future was digital. So when you reflect on these leadership lessons, especially at the point when digital the writing was on the wall, which by late eighties, early nineties, it was obvious this was going to become a real thing. 

How do you think the leadership could have handled it differently for Kodak to have been able to better transition to a different future? 

Steve Sasson: 

Let me just put a finer point on one sentence you've just said, and that was, it was obvious in the late eighties and early nineties. I think to the technologists, that's true. But to the marketing and to the business planners, it wasn't really true. There were still opportunities for it to fail or to only adopt for a niche. Remember film was improving as well. Film was getting faster and better and cameras were getting smaller. And so, it wasn't like film was just sitting there. So it was sort of a race as such. I think the broad population, if it were up to all the disciplines that make up a big company, they don't all come to the same conclusion at the same time. That's all I'm trying to say. 

But let me tell you that, of the management that I had the honor and privilege of working with here. And I mean George Fisher and Dan Carp and Antonio Perez. All three of those people, they got it. They saw it coming. There was a lot of momentum on the part of some of the middle management ranks inside of Kodak, I don't think there's any denying that. I think if you asked one of those guys, a lot of their battles were inside, not outside in terms of getting people to change everything from rewards structures, to what they were comfortable with, to just getting used to our new technology. Then you couple that with the way the world was changing. 

The internet was starting to come into being. We haven't even gotten to social networking yet.  Photography was being viewed as something different now. It was no longer something to  capture a moment, memorialize an event like a wedding or something. It now became something more casual where you would record an experience or share an experience with someone and do it instantly. With the internet, you could do it instantly.

So the picture quality didn't have to be that great. Which is what Kodak spent the last a hundred years trying to get better. Now, all of a sudden it didn't have to be that great. It just had to be more immediate.  What Kodak was facing was every grain of sand under their feet was shifting. And so it was very hard to try to adapt to all of that and to absorb where all of this was going. I would say in the late nineties or so when we had the first megapixel cameras and I would say as we call it the dominant design of a digital camera,  a, little screen on the back and button and memory cards and all that. That was kind of in the late nineties, when that started to appear at one megapixel, two megapixel cameras. That's when it started to get very serious. It really didn't take off until the mid 2000s when obviously then it really took off. 

So it happened sort of gradually. It was in 1997 that Kodak introduced the APS film format, which was a nude film format. And I remember being at Kodak just shaking my head at the fact that we were launching an entirely new film format in 1997, when it was really obvious to most people, that digital photography, you can argue when it's gonna like bankrupt you okay? But you know it was going to radically affect the business model. And yet we were introducing this new film and the argument was simply if we spend a lot of money and it extends the life of film one more year, we'll make so much more money than if we go into digital now. But that's a business decision. It's sort of a short-sighted business decision, but that was kind of the decision that they sort of ran to, and a lot of people in the company disagreed with it. But the technologists largely, but a lot of marketing people that were on board were much in favor of this as well. But I don't think anybody on that side of the equation had a business model or a profit activity that came close to what film could do. So what's the right business decision? What's the right answer for shareholders? 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

It is really hard. I mean, at times people have said Kodak was over-managed, underled, arrogant culture, 125 years of success that didn't let them see it. 

Part of what your story shows, Steve, is the fact that Kodak invested the resources and the support in terms of the technology to embrace it. But there is a lot more complexity. There could have been other leadership decisions made, but it is not as simple as now we look back and with hindsight, understand what should have been done especially with the constraints, whether it's the constraints with respect to shareholder expectations, board expectations, team member expectations. There are a lot of those constraints that come into it, but what you have done Steve Sasson is that through the invention of digital photography at Kodak, you have truly transformed the lives of people building on what George Eastman wanted to do and did. He wanted photography to be accessible and more accessible? You took it to the next level by making memories and capturing these memories accessible, which is why president Obama also awarded you the national medal of technology and innovation. 

So what was that experience like receiving this recognition and this award from President Obama, Steve? 

Steve Sasson: 

Oh, I must tell you, as a technologist, development guy, inventor, whatever. You don't think about those kinds of things ? And when something like that happens to you, first of all, you're standing on the shoulders of giants. Everything I ever learned about photography. I learned from my friends and colleagues of 35 years, a piece from Kodak company. And so there's so many people that are smarter than me and things. So basically I'm kind of an ambassador for a whole organization. 

That experience was kind of surreal. Not only meeting the president, I mean, think about this. They announce your name. You walk up and President shakes your hand. "Hi, Steven." You're inches away from the most powerful man in the world saying your name in front of the, all these photographers and dignitaries throughout the East room of the White House, but also you're on the stage with a number of other world-class inventors. The guys who invented the microprocessor were there and just many of them, they are national medal of science and national medal of technology innovation. So both the people I was hanging around with the backstage and the people I met on the stage  really, really impressed me. And I kept wondering, what the heck am I doing here? And you think about when you were a kid, you were going scrounging parts in Brooklyn, you ended up here. It's not anything you can really anticipate. But it was a very memorable experience. And I'll never forget it. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And I believe the President also asked you something to this effect, which is, do you ever reflect on the fact that all across the globe, every single minute of every single day, what you invented helps people capture special moments in their lives?

Steve Sasson: 

Yeah, so the President and he was very gracious.   And you're on the stage and there's a lot of photography and stuff video, but then you get a chance to meet with the President individually in the blue room afterwards. And I didn't know that. I just found that out when they called my name from the red room, ,and you walk in there and  you're in the center room, in the White House and there's the President of the United States standing in the center of that room by himself and a photographer. Kneeling down underneath the windows, looking out at the South lawn. That's a little intimidating and as I walked toward him,  he said a funny thing. First of all, he recognized me. Because he had introduced maybe 20 people, maybe more with all these different backgrounds and things. And so the fact that he just recognized me, it was amazing to me. But as I walked toward him, he looked and turned to the photographer and said, "Okay, now the pressure's on." You know, to say, you got to get, take a good picture. And then he asked me a question. He says, "How does it feel to have done something that's affected so many people?" And I was struck by the fact that he was asking me that question. That was not something I expected.

We had a chance to talk about innovation and  he's kind of a bit of a photographer himself. I understand he used to steal Pete Souza 's camera. He's the White House photographer. He used to steal Pete Souza's camera from him occasionally and starts shooting up the place. I'm sure Pete Souza has probably some stories about that.  He had an interest in photography and so there was a little bit of a comradery there as well.  And it was a real honor and a privilege to get a chance to chat with him, just standing there. You don't think you'd ever had that opportunity in a lifetime. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Well, Steve, it has been an honor and a privilege chatting with you. Understanding a little bit more about your passion that led you to inventing both the initial digital photographic systems, eventually capturing of images, DSLR, lot of other things.

Truly appreciate what you have done and sharing some of your history, some of your background and perspective with the Partnering Leadership community. Thank you so much for joining me, Steve Sasson. 

Steve Sasson: 

Thank you very much for having me. I've enjoyed sharing the background to the development of digital photography and the role that all the men and women at Eastman Kodak played in that.


Steven Sasson

Inventor of Digital Camera

Steven J. Sasson is an American electrical engineer and the inventor of the self-contained digital camera. Sasson is a 1972 and 1973 graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in electrical engineering. He attended and graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School. He has worked for Eastman Kodak since shortly after his graduation from engineering school.