Ten on Tech: Spotlight on Steven J. Sasson

An interview with the inventor of the first digital camera

8 March 2018

A new series by IEEE Technical Activities that asks technical experts 10 questions about their life and emerging technology. This is the first in the series.

Steven J. Sasson invented the first digital camera in 1975 while working at Eastman Kodak, in Rochester, N.Y. He began his 35-year career there in 1973 as an electrical engineer in the applied research laboratory, where he engaged in a number of early digital imaging projects. Among them were the design and construction of the first digital still camera and playback system.

The first digital camera weighed 3.6 kilograms and took grainy black-and-white images, which were recorded onto a cassette tape. It took about 23 seconds to process each image.

Sasson went on to develop the first megapixel digital camera in the 1980s, capable of storing images on memory cards. His inventions have revolutionized photography, making it easier and less expensive to capture and share photos. He received the 2016 IEEE Masaru Ibuka Consumer Electronics Award for “designing and building the first digital still camera.” Sasson also received a 2009 U.S. National Medal of Technology and Innovation.

What engineering feat has most inspired you or informed your work?

As might be typical of many people of my generation, space exploration in the 1960s and 1970s and the technical achievements that enabled it most inspired me as a youngster. I think I got interested in electronics because of those space exploration developments. Subsequent to that, some of the unmanned missions to other parts of our solar system continue to make me proud to be a member of the engineering community. Who can look at those pictures from the surface of Mars and not be moved by the results of these engineering efforts?

What do you like to do for fun?

I’ve been able to visit New York City on a more regular basis in the past few years, and when I’m there I like to catch a Broadway show. I especially enjoyed the play Come From Away, a musical about a small town in Newfoundland [Canada] accommodating 7,000 stranded airline passengers whose flights were diverted on 9/11. The most recent play I saw was The Parisian Woman, a political comedy about high society in Washington, D.C.

What are you currently reading?

My latest reads are in the historical biographies genre, including one I’m currently reading, Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit, by Chris Matthews. Bobby Kennedy was the first political figure I saw in person. I was a teenager at a rally in Brooklyn, and he was running for a U.S. Senate seat for New York. I got to stand right next to him. The next book I read will be Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson. I really enjoy Isaacson’s books and have read some of his other works on historical giants of change including Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs.

What about modern technology worries you?

Technology is being introduced to the public at an ever-increasing rate. As with any massive change, there are bound to be misapplications of technology resulting in some unintended consequences. These include social media’s influence on political outcomes and smartphones’ potential to impact young people’s ability to develop socialization skills.

What worries me the most is that companies may be able to take on the financial risks of putting out a product first, and dealing with the consequences later. It will be their responsibility to correct for the unforeseen harm on public welfare.

What tech advance in recent years has surprised you the most?

Cameras are everywhere! I would have never anticipated how ubiquitous the imaging of everything would become. Photos have become the universal form of casual conversation. And cameras are present in almost every type of environment, including in our own homes. I grossly underestimated how quickly it would take for us to get here.

How many unread messages are in your email in-box?

There are usually more than a hundred. But because of a New Year’s resolution, there are only four at the moment. Here’s hoping I can keep this up!

What was the best advice anyone gave you?

I’ve been so lucky to have had many great mentors throughout my career. Let me respond with a quote from Mark Twain: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

In the evolution of digital cameras, it was assumed that their commercial usefulness would be limited until their resolution, price, and ease of use were comparable to film-based cameras. However, it was some of the other attributes of the digital camera, such as instant viewing and electronic transmission of images, that drove early adoption and the technology’s eventual dominance over film.

I think it is always useful to spend a few moments to question your assumptions. It takes you out of your comfort zone.

What is your favorite equation or concept in engineering?

Going back to my college days, I was most impressed with the symmetry and elegance of Maxwell’s equations. It’s not that I directly use or calculate with them. It’s just that there is an inherent beauty in having four relatively simple relationships that underlie all of classical electromagnetism.

What has been an important life lesson that you can share?

When trying to get others to believe in your new idea, spend most of your time listening. I think when innovators propose their idea, they underestimate how quickly their audience absorbs the concept and overestimate how well they understand that audience. Listening to ideas that challenge your idea, and understanding the culture that may be creating these challenges, is often the key to successful innovation within an organization or marketplace.

What should IEEE be more involved in?

The evaluation of how our digital world is affecting social structures and behaviors.

It is undeniable that the technologies made available to all of us have produced some profound changes, for both good and bad. Because the electronic and digital revolutions have been such a big part of this, I often wonder if we ever consider the social impact of a new device or feature before we offer it to the public.

For example, texting is a helpful feature, but few would endorse texting while driving. It is only recently that options to prevent texting while driving have been incorporated into our smartphone operating systems. Should such features have been part of development considerations instead of after the fact, especially because governmental regulations are often a much-delayed reaction to problems?

Kristen Russell is the staff lead within IEEE Technical Activities on initiatives geared toward underrepresented groups including women and young professionals. She also supports the TAB committee on diversity and inclusion.

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