Photos: The history of the digital camera

From theoretical beginnings in space travel to a toaster-sized prototype to today's multi-megapixel monsters, the digital camera has come a long way. We present photos of some of the milestones along the way.

From theoretical beginnings as a space-travel navigation aid, the digital camera has developed from roots in tapeless analogue cameras, through sky-charting behemoths and consumer concepts. We've charted the milestones, the innovators, the groundbreakers and the downright strange. Take a look to see where your camera came from, as we visit Grandad Kodak, Uncle Apple and a whole family tree of camera cousins.

The beginnings
The history of the digital camera began with Eugene F. Lally of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who when he wasn't coming up with ways to create artificial gravity was thinking about how to use a mosaic photosensor to capture digital images. His 1961 idea was to take pictures of the planets and stars while travelling through space to give information about the astronauts' position. Unfortunately, as with Texas Instrument employee Willis Adcock's filmless camera (US patent 4,057,830) in 1972, the technology had yet to catch up with the concept.

The camera generally recognised as the first digital still snapper was a prototype (US patent 4,131,919) developed by Eastman Kodak engineer Steven Sasson in 1975. He cobbled together some Motorola parts with a Kodak movie-camera lens and some newly invented Fairchild CCD electronic sensors.

The resulting camera, pictured above on its first trip to Europe recently, was the size of a large toaster and weighed nearly 4kg. Black-and-white images were captured on a digital cassette tape, and viewing them required Sasson and his colleagues to develop a special screen.

The resolution was a revolutionary .01 megapixels and it took 23 seconds to record the first digital photograph. Talk about shutter lag.

Some believe that Kodak missed a trick by not developing this technological breakthrough, with film remaining their bread and butter. The next step in the process would come from elsewhere.

The end of film?
The first commercial CCD camera was developed by Fairchild in 1976. The MV-101 was used to inspect Procter & Gamble products. The following year Konica introduced the C35-AF, the world's first compact point-and-shoot autofocus camera. But the filmless age was kickstarted on 25 August 1981, when Sony demonstrated the first camera to bear the name Mavica (Magnetic Video Camera).

Not strictly a digital camera, the Mavica was actually an analogue television camera. It stored pictures on two-inch floppy disks called Mavipaks, that could hold up to fifty colour photos for playback on a television or monitor. CCD size was 570x490 pixels on a 10x12mm chip. The light sensitivity of the sensor was ISO 200 and the shutter speed was fixed at 1/60 second. It ran off AA batteries.

The analogue age
Analogue cameras may have been the start of the digital age, in that they recorded images on to electronic media, but they never really took off due to poor image quality and prohibitive cost. They were mainly used by newspapers to cover events such as the 1984 Olympics, the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and the Gulf War in 1991. Canon launched the first analogue camera to go on sale, the RC-701, in 1986, and followed it with the RC-250 Xapshot, the first consumer analogue camera, in 1988.

The Xapshot was called the Ion in Europe, and the Q-PIC in Japan. It cost $499 in the US, but consumers had to splash out a further $999 on a battery, computer interface card with software, and floppy disks. Think about that the next time you get annoyed when you have to pay extra for memory cards.

The coming of true digital
The first true digital camera that actually worked was built in 1981. The University of Calgary Canada ASI Science Team built the Fairchild All-Sky camera to photograph auroras, an example of which is shown on the right of our picture.

The All-Sky Camera utilised more of those 100x100-pixel Fairchild CCDs, which had been around since 1973. What made the All-Sky Camera truly digital was that it recorded digital data rather than analogue. In October 1981 the digital revolution rolled on with the release of the world's first consumer compact disk player, the Sony CDP-101.

Colani's concepts: the future of cameras?
In 1983, Canon commisioned outspoken designer Luigi Colani to envision the future of camera design. The chap who believed that "an egg represents the highest form of packaging since the dawn of time" drew on his "no straight lines in the universe" philosophy to create the 5 Systems. These designs included (top left to right) the Hy-Pro, an SLR design with an LCD viewfinder, a novice camera named (rather politically incorrectly) the Lady, the Super C. Bio with power zoom and built-in flash, and the underwater Frog.

Our main picture shows the HOMIC (Horizontal Memorychip Integral storobo Camera). This was a Gerry Anderson-esque concept for a still video camera recording to solid-state memory. Unusually, the lens and viewfinder were on the same axis, while the flash fired through the objective lens.

The HOMIC was exhibited at the 1984 Photokina, but was never marketed.

 

Digital hits the shops
The first true digital handheld camera was the Fuji DS-1P, developed in 1988 but never sold. It recorded images as computerised files. These were saved on a 16MB SRAM internal memory card, which was jointly developed withToshiba. That same year, Digital Darkroom became the first image-manipulation program for the Macintosh computer.

Also in 1988, the first JPEG and MPEG standards were set.

The first digital camera to actually go on sale was the 1990 Dycam Model 1 (pictured). A grey version was marketed as the Logitech Fotoman. It used a CCD image sensor, stored pictures digitally, and connected directly to a PC for download.

Digital comes to SLR
Digital backs were attached to film cameras in some SLR systems. An example of this is the Hasselblad DB 4000 with a Leaf back (pictured), which arrived in 1991. It packed a 2,048x2,048-pixel CCD and 8-bit storage.

Adobe PhotoShop 1.0 hit the shops in 1990.

Digital goes online!
Mosaic, the first web browser that let users view photographs over the Web, was released by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications in 1992.

That year also saw the the Kodak DCS 200 (pictured) debut with a built-in hard drive. It was based on the Nikon N8008s and came in five combinations of black and white or colour, with and without hard drive. Resolution was 1.54 million pixels, roughly four times the resolution of still-video cameras.

Apple gets in on the action: the QuickTake
You'd have to live under a rock to not know that Apple makes phones these days, but did you know it also had a crack at the digital camera market? The Apple QuickTake 100 (pictured top), launched in 1994, was actually manufactured by Kodak, and was the the first colour digital camera for under $1,000. It packed a 640x480-pixel CCD and could stash up to eight 640x480 images in the internal memory.

The QuickTake 200 (pictured below) followed later, and was built by Fujifilm.

Connected cameras and CompactFlash
The first 'photo quality' desktop inkjet printer arrived in 1994. The Epson MJ-700V2C (pictured left) managed 720x720 dots per inch.

Later that year, the Olympus Deltis VC-1100 (pictured left) became the world's first digital camera with built-in transmission capabilities. With a modem connected, photos could be transmitted over phone lines -- even mobiles -- although it took about six minutes to transmit high-quality images. Image resolution was 768x576 pixels, the shutter speed could be set between 1/8 and 1/1000 second, and it included a colour LCD viewfinder.

SmartMedia card and CompactFlash cards also arrived that year. The first camera to use CompactFlash was the Kodak DC-25 (pictured right) in 1996.

The shape of things to come
The shape of today's compact digital cameras began to emerge in Casio QV-10 in 1995, which was the first with an LCD screen on the back. The screen measured 46mm (1.8 inches) from corner to corner.

It was also the first consumer digital camera with a pivoting lens. Photos were captured by a 1/5-inch 460x280-pixel CCD and stored to a semiconductor memory, which held up to 96 colour still images. Other now-familiar features included macro positioning, automatic exposure, auto-playback of images and a self timer. It cost $1,000.

Wired for sound
In 1995, the first digital camera to shoot both still photos and movie footage with sound appeared. The Ricoh RDC-1 included a removable 64mm (2.5-inch) colour LCD screen. The CCD packed a 768x480-pixel resolution, while the zoom clocked in at 3x and f/2.8. More than a decade later and those are still the baseline specs for compacts (apart from the resolution, of course).

The RDC-1 would have set you back a hefty $1,500.

Webcams and compacts
In 1995, Logitech debuted the VideoMan, its first webcam, and the first colour digital video camera for the personal computer.

The now-familiar compact shape continued to emerge with the Canon PowerShot 600 (pictured) in 1996. It had a 1/3-inch, 832x608-pixel CCD, built-in flash, auto white balance and an optical viewfinder as well as an LCD display. It was the first consumer digital camera able to write images to a hard disk drive, and could store up to 176MB. It cost $949.

The digital age!
And there we have it. Although compacts were appearing in strange shapes, such as the Pentax EI-C90, which split into two sections, the basic form factor was laid down for today's multi-megapixel monsters -- roughly the same size as the tape cassette Steve Sasson used to record one grainy image (pictured).

Camera phones and CMOS sensors appeared in 1997, while megapixel counts are constantly climbing. The forthcoming Hasselblad H3D II will boast a gobsmacking 39 megapixels. How far we've come. -Rich Trenholm

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About the author

Rich Trenholm is a senior editor at CNET where he covers everything from phones to bionic implants. Based in London since 2007, he has travelled the world seeking out the latest and best consumer technology for your enjoyment.

 

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