Interview with Steve Sasson, Inventor of the Digital Camera at Kodak and Tech Innovator about Innovation

Interview-with-tech-inventor-Steve-Sasson

We recently sat down for an exclusive interview with Steve Sasson, who was listed in the Top Trending Innovation Speakers to Book for 2022!

Steve invented the digital camera in the 70s while working at Kodak, an incredible feat that changed the global landscape of photography.

In this exciting Q&A, discover Steve’s top tips for workplace and technology innovation and what he believes to be the “next big thing” in the world of technology.

How can businesses create a culture of creativity and innovation?

“I spent most of my time in Kodak, it was pretty typical of a big organisation. What I noticed was innovators were celebrated, but not empowered.

“So, you would recognise someone who made an invention or got a patent or innovated a new process – a business process or a marketing idea or something – but then they were rarely empowered to carry it through. Now, maybe the innovators don’t want to carry it through? But a lot of them do or they want to be part of the success as it goes forward.

“I think you have to, as an organisation, create an environment that allows people to live with their idea, and grow with their idea. It makes them better inventors. To be honest with you, the best inventors are the ones that live through the development of their ideas, who see all of the difficulties and failures that are largely unanticipated in their initial idea.

“They become more sophisticated inventors, more realistic inventors. We tend to keep the inventors in a box – they are the crazy people in the corner!”

What first inspired your invention of the self-contained digital camera?

“When I went to Kodak, I was an electrical engineer, a relatively new breed of hires and we largely did mechanical engineering, because cameras were mechanical. You had to load the film and then you had to take the film out and develop it, and then you had to print it on the paper. And none of that seemed cool to me at all!

“I had learned about digital technology in my first couple of years of Kodak, so I combined my ideas with what I called an electronic camera. I called it an electronic camera because I was thinking, ‘could I build a camera that didn’t use any consumables?’

“In fact, the only thing that was consumed by taking a picture was a few joules of energy. It fit with my Star Trek mentality!

“I used digital technology to basically freeze time because if you could digitise it, you could store it. If you could store it, you wouldn’t need any mechanical moving parts. I had no idea if I could do it, it was just a dream. Luckily, I was working for a supervisor who was very patient with this crazy idea, it took about a year.

“We didn’t see any pictures for the whole year. We worked on it, we only saw oscilloscope traces, voltage measurements, and things like that. It wasn’t until early December of 1975 that both the playback unit, which was a key part of this, and the camera itself were complete enough so that we could actually take a picture and see it on the screen.

“When it actually worked, I was very happy!”

What was the biggest challenge you overcame during the invention process?

“It was difficult to get a big investment. It wasn’t until other competitors started talking about photography when Sony introduced the concept of the Mavika camera – which was a still video floppy disk – they started investing more.

“Kodak did invest very quietly, by the way. There was a lot of investment going on, but it was very secret – I guess we really didn’t talk about it. We didn’t have people publishing lots of papers or anything, and the reason was that [the digital camera] was obviously going to disrupt an established business from which we made a lot of money.

“Our customers were not dissatisfied with photography; it wasn’t like there was a big problem with the establishment. It was effective, it was cost-effective. It was reliable. It was relatively cheap. So professionals and consumers were quite happy with it – that was part of the pushback I got in ‘76.

“Nobody knew that the microprocessors were going to turn into home PCs, that could turn into massive software activities that were going to turn into everyday devices that are going to turn into social networking! We didn’t know any of that.

“That was another aspect, [Kodak] controlled a lot of the photographic space. They made cameras, they made film, they made paper. They sponsored photofinishing outlets. It was a nice world to be in. But all of sudden, digital photography [came along], and a different person would buy the camera, build the camera, then they would use software written by somebody else in California.

“If the picture looked bad, they would blame the camera. You know, nobody controlled the whole system. Think about if you control the whole system and then all of a sudden, your business is thrown open to all these crazy people that you don’t control and know, and they don’t have the standards you have, that changes your world radically.

“So, it was hard to think about all of that in the early days.”

What do you believe will be the “next big thing” in technology?

“My lifetime has been dominated by the age of information, where we can capture, store, and share information easier and easier every decade. But I think, as I look forward, I’m very impressed with biotechnology, and genomic research.

“This idea – if you’ve heard of CRISPR – where you can fine-tune a genomic sequence. You can go in and do things that we never could do before – there’s a lot of pluses and minuses to that, a lot of ethical questions.

“Already, significant therapeutic use is being considered, and I think we’re going to see a biotechnology revolution that’s equivalent to the information revolution that my life was dominated by.

“I am just fascinated by how it’s going to impact our lives, all of the technical decisions and successes that are being made and also some of the moral decisions, just like we had moral decisions with terms of privacy or taking pictures of people when they don’t want you to.”

If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?

“I would say, be more open with people, ask people questions.

“I used to go to my lab in Brooklyn when I was building my stuff, I would read books and I would go downstairs and try to figure it out myself. I wish I had reached out to other people that might know more about it. I did on some occasions, but it wasn’t my natural mode.

“There were good parts to that because I learned to focus. But there were bad parts of it as well, it stopped me from maybe making more progress and stopped me from being able to convince people about new ideas.”

This exclusive interview with Steve Sasson was conducted by Megan Lupton.

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