Digital Camera Pioneers

The decision to get out of the digital camera business will impact many Eastman Kodak Co. employees, but perhaps none more than Kenneth Parulski. The chief scientist has been with the company since 1980 and played a major role in many of the significant advances in digital imaging history.

Parulski’s name is on nearly 200 patents, including the one that is at the heart of Kodak’s intellectual property portfolio. Patent no. 6,292,218 covers the technology to display a live video preview while taking a still photo. That innovation is part of almost every digital camera, smart phone, and tablet device, and is the subject of infringement lawsuits which Kodak has filed against Apple, HTC Corportion, and FujiFilm.

On the day that Kodak announced it was quitting the digital camera business, I reached Parulski in Yokohama, Japan, where he is leading the US delegation in an ISO standards meeting on digital photography

“Of course I’m sad that many of my friends here, and our families, will have their lives disrupted by this announcement,” Parulski said. “But frankly, I think the future will be bright.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if many of us move on to have an even bigger impact on digital photography, at other companies, or at new start-ups. Rochester has a great track record of photographic innovations. I’m sure this will continue.”

Page from Bayer's lab notebook in 1974 describing his idea for a color filter array

Parulski joined Kodak just a few years after the company’s researchers had taken the first tentative steps into the world of digital imaging. In 1974 Bryce Bayer developed a color filter pattern, an array of photo sensors that could capture an image electronically. Bayer received patent no. 3,971,065 for that technology in 1976. The Bayer filter has been used to capture color images in almost every digital camera and smart phone ever made.

A year later, Steven Sasson and Gareth Lloyd made the first digital camera. The device was the size of a toaster, and it took 23 seconds to record a black and white image onto a digital cassette tape. That image could then be displayed on a television set.

Sasson and Lloyd received patent no. 4,131,919 for this ground breaking invention in 1978, but it would be more than a decade before the first digital camera reached the marketplace, and it wasn’t until 1996 that a consumer version was available for less than $1000.

Why did it take so long?

Parulski says his colleagues at Kodak were working far beyond the cutting edge and that the limited technology of the era kept them from moving any faster.

“The image sensors that Bryce and Steve were working with had only 10,000 pixels,” Parulski said. “so the pictures were fuzzy and noisy, but they cost thousands of dollars each.”

From 1974, one of the first digital images ever captured.

Flash memory chips had not yet been invented. Neither had personal computers. There was no simple way to view, store, or print digital images, let alone share them with others around the world.

“Trying to sell consumer digital cameras in the 1970s would be like trying to mass produce autos, while using one-horsepower engines that cost more than today’s entire cars, before there were any paved roads or gas stations,” Parulski said.

By the mid-1980s, technology was catching up with the Kodak researchers. In 1987, Kodak researcher James McGarvey developed the first digital single lens reflex camera (DSLR), for which he received patent no. 4,916,476 . That camera was big and bulky, requiring a separate shoulder pack to house the battery and a hard drive. He designed several prototypes of single-unit DSLRs over the next few years. One flew on a space shuttle mission in November 1991. Another was the basis of Kodak’s first commercially available digital camera, the Kodak Professional Digital Camera System, which was released in 1991.

The earliest adopters were photojournalists, who saw that digital cameras could improve their workflow. The Kodak cameras had built in editing tools and a connection for a modem, to help get their pictures back to the newsroom—and into print—more quickly.

Even though there were still technological barriers, McGarvey says he always knew that digital cameras would inevitably reach the hands of consumers.

“If Kodak had never been involved,” McGarvey said, “digital cameras would still have been invented. But the work that we did helped speed their development ahead by several years.”

McGarvey said that he was personally saddened at the end of this chapter in Kodak’s history. “I think of the people I worked with and hope that all of them would be proud of what we have done,” McGarvey said. He has already moved on to other types of projects at Kodak.

Parulski doesn’t know what his future holds

“I’m not sure what I’ll be doing next,” Parulski said on Friday. “But that’s part of the fun of being an inventor. There’s always something surprising just around the corner. But you’re never certain what it will be, until you start looking at the world from a new direction.”

This column originally appeared in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.