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Archive >  July 2013 Issue >  Tech-Op-Ed > 

Shame on You
Walter Salm, Editor
Bell Labs has enriched us with a string of incredible technology breakthroughs over the years, but there are three standouts that really lead the pack: the transistor, followed closely by the integrated circuit, and then the charge-coupled device (CCD). Each of these inventions ultimately revolutionized our entire world, the way we do business, and the way we live our lives. But I have to believe that the CCD really takes top honors. Today, every smart phone contains a high-resolution digital camera as one of the many parts of this incredible repository of highly concentrated technology. I use an extremely outdated Blackberry Bold, and even that unprepossessing instrument contains vastly more computing power than the Osborne, my first home office computer back in 1982.

Today's college students grew up with cell phones, digital cameras and notebook computers. When I was in college, my camera of choice was a Speed Graphic, a very large, cumbersome camera favored by press photographers. It was so complicated to use, I had to go through an 11-point check list before pressing the shutter release. With that much required preparation, I rarely took a bad picture. I wrote my papers and projects on a manual Smith-Corona portable typewriter.

Video cameras at broadcast centers still relied on vidicon tubes as image sensors — four of them per camera — three for primary colors and one for "luminance" levels. They were all monochrome sensors, using filters to separate the colors. TV sets were still big, cumbersome, unwieldy boxes, and you can still buy them at thrift stores if you want to open your own museum.

My very first camera, inherited from my parents, was a 1929 vintage No. 1A Pocket Kodak (116 postcard-size film), a folding camera with bellows that did not fit in any of my pockets. As a camera, it was barely adequate, but then I graduated to the truly pocket-size Kodak Bantam (828 film). The film, the same width as 35mm film but with special sprocket holes, was hard to get, and before long, I moved up to the Speed Graphic, which used 3-1/4 x 4-1/4-in. cut film in sheet film holders.

Last year, I finally bit the bullet and shelved my third Kodak digital camera in favor of a trim, pocket-size Nikon S6400 — about the same size as a cell phone. My camera equipment has been getting progressively smaller, although I still hesitate to depend on my phone for my photography. Strangely, Kodak started it all. The year was 1974 when an Eastman Kodak engineer named Steve Sasson, instructed to check out this new doohickey called a charged coupled device as an image sensor supplied by Fairchild Semiconductor. Fascinated by the CCD's possibilities, Steve managed to assemble — mostly from junk-drawer parts — the world's very first all-electronic camera. The CCD was an alalog device, so the camera had to include analog-to-digital conversion. The invention used a discarded lens from a Super-8 movie camera, a cassette data tape as its storage medium, was monochrome only, and produced an incredibly low-res picture on a TV monitor. The camera was about the size of a large toaster, weighed 8.5 pounds, and produced a photo with a resoluion of 0.01 megapixel.

About the same time this was going on, I was visiting trade shows toting my 20-pound leather camera bag containing a Nikkormat 35mm single-lens reflex, two spare Nikon lenses — a 35mm wide angle, and a 155mm telephoto, plus a kludgy Honeywell strobe, which attached to the camera with an equally kludgy bracket that screwed into the tripod socket. Also in the camera bag were a half-dozen different filters, at least six 36-exposure rolls of Tri-X film and a couple of rolls of Ektachrome. I was still using this camera when I first started working for U.S. Tech in 1985.

The back of my home-office desk was lined with those empty black and gray Kodak plastic film containers, which were just too good to throw away. Even though I was using a Japanese camera, I was still doing my best to keep Eastman Kodak in business.

My first digital camera, purchased in 2002, was a Kodak DX4900, at the time highly rated by Consumer Reports. It took some getting used to after a lifetime of using film. Within two years, I replaced it with a Kodak DX6490, a full-featured unit that more closely resembled a "real" single-lens reflex camera. It had a German-made Schneider lens, and I loved that camera dearly until some features finally stopped working. I guess I just wore it out. This was followed by my wife's Kodak DX7440, which I "borrowed" for a while until I found my present camera, the pocket-size Nikon.

The part that really bothers me about all of this is that Kodak clung to its film business so tenaciously — even as it was evaporating — that the company eventually had to file for bankruptcy, and this was the company that was responsible for inventing digital photography to begin with! The company has since re-invented itself on a much smaller scale, but no longer do those familiar yellow boxes dominate the shelves in drug stores and at camera counters.

Kudos to Kodak's Steve Sasson for inventing the digital camera, and a really big "shame-on-you" to Kodak for letting the business get away from the company. Kodak-developed technology is still used in all of today's digital cameras. And of course they?re all made off-shore. That has to be a really big "shame on you."  

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