Obama honors inventor of digital camera

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 19, 2010; 9:58 AM

In a parallel universe, a grilled cheese image of the Virgin Mary never sold for $28,000 after its image was uploaded on eBay. Wunderkind Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau never groped the chest of a cardboard Hillary Clinton on Facebook (at least not that anyone saw) and you never pretended not to recognize your boss on Match.com. That cousin? The one who apparently spends every moment of her awake time posting unflattering family reunion snapshots onto Flickr? In this parallel universe, that cousin has another passtime. She knits booties for your cat.

This odd false world - free from gourmands who photo-blog stylized meals, but also lacking joyous e-mailed images of new grandkids - bears only passing resemblence to the one we live in today. If we were making a movie about it, "It's a Wonderful Life"-style, this would be the world in which Steve Sasson had never been born.

In 1975, as a young engineer who had no interest in photography but had taken a job with Kodak because he heard Rochester was nice, he invented the digital camera.

"Nobody really knew what we were working on in that lab," Sasson says. "It's not that we were trying to be secretive, it's just that nobody cared. 'Why would anyone want to look at images on a screen? What's the point of an electronic photo album?' "

On Wednesday, in an evening ceremony in the East Room of the White House, President Obama awarded Sasson a 2009 National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the highest honor bestowed by the United States government on engineers and inventors. The other three medals went to the developer of dip-and-read urinalysis, the inventor of super glue, and the Intel team that first conceived of the microprocessor (Medals were also presented to winners of the National Medal of Science).

"Nobody rushes on a field and dumps Gatorade on [you] when you win a science competition," the President said, explaining the need to formally recognize the sciences.

The digital camera has "revolutionized the way images are captured, stored and shared," said the dress-uniformed marine tasked with reading the honorees' achievements.

Sasson, 60, had come to Washington a few days early from his upstate New York home to sightsee. He flew commercial.

The camera he invented, the original prototype, flew on a private jet.

Ensconced in a ding-proof suitcase, it was then transferred to the care of Mike Hoftra, Kodak's local publicist. On a recent morning, Sasson sat in Hoftra's office and showed off his 35-year-old creation.

It's about the size of a toaster. It could be used to perform bicep curls, but holds only about .01 megapixels. "Sixteen NiCad batteries," Sasson says, pointing to the Nickel Cadmium batteries through a mess of exposed wires and nubby tabs called potentiometers. He's about the size of a linebacker, a big man with short gray bangs and a pleasant, fatherly face. He could go for hours talking about his and other cameras - how they work, their production history - but it's all technical jib-jab, not artistic. Sasson compares himself to a guy who invented a really good pen, which wouldn't necessarily make that guy a good writer. All of this is to say that the guy who invented the digital camera doesn't really know anything about photography.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company