By Donna Loughlin
In the mid-1970s, a young engineer named Steve Sasson graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Upstate New York and was quickly hired by Eastman Kodak, one of the most important companies in America at the time, and maybe even the world.
One of the first projects Steve was given was to see if Kodak might have a use for a new piece of technology called a charged-coupling device. What a charged-coupling device actually does is not necessarily pertinent to Steve’s story. But suffice it to say, he found a use for the device that would change the world. Just a few months out of college, Steve had built the first digital camera the world had ever seen. But it would be nearly 15 years before it was brought to market — and Kodak wasn’t even the company that did it.
It might be difficult to remember just how big Kodak was at the time. For decades, the company dominated the photography industry with an impenetrable business model that required you to buy Kodak cameras, use Kodak film and get the negatives developed on Kodak paper. Steve thought he’d just discovered the future of photography — and in hindsight, we now know he was right. But when he showed the company brass his new filmless camera, they simply weren’t interested. Why put time and resources into a problem that didn’t need to be solved?
“They didn’t want to give the impression that Kodak was abandoning film, because they didn’t want people to not buy film,” Steve told me. “They also felt that people looked to Kodak to be the authority on how to take pictures. So they didn’t want to ever suggest that a technology to take pictures would be necessary or even acceptable.”
Steve’s story is unique for Before It Happened because he’s every bit the innovator of anyone we’ve ever had on the show, but his innovation was so far before its time that it took years before the world would see it. And when they did, it was a variation of what he’d created more than a decade earlier, and it was brought to market by another company — the Japanese electronics giant, Fuji. For years Kodak had instructed Steve not to talk publicly about his digital camera — but now that there was competition, the company decided to make him the face of their plan to gain back the ground they’d lost.
“It became a competitive advantage,” Steve says. “We were competing with Sony and Nikon and everybody else selling digital cameras to consumers, so they realized that it made sense to start playing up how Kodak had invented the digital camera. We had the first patent, we had the prototype. So I’m getting interviewed and getting my picture taken with the camera. I went from never talking about it to talking about it all the time.”
But by the late-1990s, film had become obsolete and Kodak was caught flat-footed. Their failure to innovate — more specifically, their inability to run with Steve’s groundbreaking innovation — turned Kodak into a cautionary tale. And though Steve would spend his entire career with the once-powerful corporation (he retired after the company declared bankruptcy in 2012), he’s still active on the lecture circuit where he’s quick to share his take on what went wrong.
“I hear it all the time,” he says. “‘How can I avoid being the next Kodak?’ Think of companies that are seeing clouds on the horizon — maybe the oil companies worrying about the advent of electric vehicles and the monumental changes coming to their business. It’s difficult for those companies that have been successful for so long to actually change their approach. That’s what you’d have to do, but it’s not that easy.”
Steve has managed to keep his sense of humor about his project.
When he looks back on the twisted route he took to tech-industry notoriety, one theory Steve is quick to reject — albeit in good humor — is that he is indirectly responsible for one of the most infamous symbols of digital-era narcissism. He’s here to tell you that he did not invent the “selfie.”
“The camera I built was eight pounds,” Steve says with a laugh. “I certainly wasn’t thinking of anyone turning it around on themselves and snapping a picture. I don’t even remember discussing it with anybody. But it goes to show you how when a new technology comes along, people will use it in ways you can’t even imagine even though you were the one who came up with it.”
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