The year is 1961. JFK has just been sworn in as the 35th US President, The Beatles have made their debut at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, and Eugene F. Lally is sitting in the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. Bored of designing rockets and other things that help rockets go faster, Lally has an idea. Instead of just sending people up into space, how about giving them a camera for taking pictures of the planets and stars to send back to earth, helping identify the astronauts’ location? A few diagrams and a good number of hours thinking and writing later, Lally had produced a paper, entitled ‘Mosaic Guidance for Interplanetary Travel’, the blueprint for the very first digital camera. Unfortunately for Lally, he was approximately 14 years ahead of his time, and the technology was just not available to bring his blueprint to life. Still, the foundations had been laid, and digital photography was not far away!
Fourteen years after Lally’s blueprint, Steve Sasson of Kodak took a few spare camera parts, and old jet engine and his grandma’s broken black and white television into his shed and emerged a few months later with what is now recognised as the world’s first digital camera. Although we lied about the bit about the jet engine and the television, he did actually use parts found in a bin from a Kodak Super 8 assembly line to construct his masterpiece, and the result was a 100 line black and white image recorded to a cassette tape, which needed a rather cumbersome micro computer to view the image on a television screen. Sasson’s camera was surprisingly deemed impractical, with Kodak simply not having access to the funds, time, or enough geeks to pursue Sasson’s prototype. However, Sasson had done what no one had done before him, and the digital camera was here to stay.
Finally, in 1987, digital photography hit the mainstream, used for commercial purposes for the first time. The camera? Surprisingly it wasn’t manufactured by one of the big players- not Fuji, Kodak or Canon, but MegaVision, a self proclaimed ‘small employee-owned company’ who first cornered the market with their ‘Tessera’ system. Based around a high-resolution 2000-line tube camera, the Tessera produced high resolution colour images, ideal for model shoots or taking photos of multi-coloured things. Still alive and well today, MegaVision labels itself as ‘The First Name in Digital Photography’, and while this may be a little unfair to Mr. Lally of the aforementioned NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, few could dispute that MegaVision made every day digital photography use a reality. And as MegaVision are also based in California, Mr Lally was consoled by the fact that his lawyers didn’t have very far to travel!
As far as technology is concerned, the Japanese are rarely outdone. And when they are, they don’t take to it very kindly. News of MegaVision’s first commercial digital camera must have travelled across the Pacific quickly, because it took Fuji less than a year to release the world’s first fully digital consumer camera, the DS-1P. Also the world’s first camera to use removable flash card media, pioneering the SRAM flash card the DS-1P paved the way for portable digital cameras, as well as being remarkably cheap. Yes, depending on the lens size, you could have picked up a DS-1P for as little as $10,000, the top of the range version only setting you back a measly $40,000. Not bad, considering the DS-1P even had a built in battery – it’s a wonder how anyone resisted.
After having been pipped to the post by MegaVision’s first commercial digital camera, the Japanese were desperate to find something innovative to make their own. Therefore it came as no surprise when, in 2001, Sharp Corporation produced the J-SH04, the world’s very first commercial camera phone. Whether the technology behind it is that innovative is questionable, as some critics have argued they simply put a camera and a mobile phone in a technological blender and produced a camera phone, however Sharp’s product did what no other had done before it and what pretty much everyone else proceeded to do in the years that followed. And we now all know who to blame for the exponential rise in pub quiz cheating.
The Digital Photography revolution continued, and continued so fast that it actually outgrew the earth itself, proving extremely useful for a wide number of astronomical adventures. In 2002, the famous Hubble Telescope added another weapon to its already impressive technological armoury – the Advanced Camera for Surveys. The ACS is no run of the mill digital camera however. The ACS, in the words of the Hubble website, ‘helps map the distribution of dark matter, detects the most distant objects in the universe, searches for massive planets, and studies the evolution of clusters of galaxies’. To summarise, the ACS is on a one camera mission to answer every question any enquiring astronomical mind has ever thought to ask. Eugene Lally would be so proud!
Although The Hubble ACS may get the headlines for the sheer size and difficulty of its task alone, there were numerous space travelling digital cameras before it. They just made less noise. Take for example the Mars Global Surveyor, which returned home to earth in November 2006 after a monumental 9 years in orbit of the Red Planet. Using a system of three cameras (a narrow angled camera to produce high resolution black and white images as well as red and blue wide angle cameras for context and daily global imaging), the Mars Orbiter Camera experiment returned an incredible 240,000 images, including the very first pictures of Earth from Mars. For some people, this represented an enormous technological and astronomical breakthrough. For the rest us, it represents the chance for some pretty cool desktop backgrounds.
Forget over-complicated technological advances – sometimes it’s just about making your camera bigger and louder than everyone else’s. Unless you’re a spy camera manufacturer of course, in which case this is exactly the opposite of what you’re being paid to do. Everyone else, look to the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) project. Scheduled to be launched in 2010, Pan-STARRS will orbit the earth and scan the skies for asteroids or other possible threats to Earth. A bit like having a giant digital bodyguard, the project consists of four telescopes, the first of which, the PS1 in Hawaii, was fitted with a camera back in 2007 boasting an unprecedented 1.4 billion pixels which will provide ridiculously high resolution images . Which means if we are hit by an asteroid, at least we’ll get some really good pictures of it as it enters our atmosphere.
About the author
Tom Walker is a keen technology addict who writes articles about photography, printing, and ink technology such as HP Photosmart ink.