Steven J. Sasson

inventor of the digital camera


Using a digital camera, either as part of a smartphone or as a separate device, is something millions of people take for granted. Few know who invented it and the curious story behind it. Steven J. Sasson is the name of the man to whom the world owes the very first DigiCam.

Steven J. Sasson

inventor of the digital camera


Steven Sasson
Steven Sasson | © Steve Kelly

Born on 4 July 1950, the son of a Norwegian-American couple, Steven J. Sasson received his Master's degree in electrical engineering from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, in 1973 and then worked for the Eastman Kodak Company. There he was commissioned to design an electronic camera with light-sensitive electronic components (CCD sensors), which had originally been developed for data storage. The working prototype was ready in December 1975 - a 3.6-kilogram, portable piece the size of a toaster. It took black-and-white photos that were stored on a tape cassette and displayed on a television monitor.

When Sasson presented his revolutionary invention to managers in-house in 1976, the Brooklyn native was met with disinterest instead of euphoria and was even forbidden to talk about his invention. The company did patent his innovation in 1978, but it also disappeared in the safe! The reason: the world's largest photo, film and camera company at the time feared that the groundbreaking project, which a US daily newspaper was to report on for the first time on 16 October 2001, would destroy its central business. A momentous miscalculation: competitors brought digital cameras onto the market and did gigantic business; the Eastman Kodak Co., however, which continued to earn billions with the licensing of the patent for a long time, filed for bankruptcy in January 2012.

The original of the first digital camera is exhibited in the National Museum of American History in Washington - near Thomas Edison's light bulb, the first Apple I computer and a prototype of the mobile phone.

US-President Barack Obama honoured Steven J. Sasson with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the highest award for researchers, technicians and inventors in the USA, at a ceremony on 17 November 2009 at the White House. At the same time, the originator of an innovation that has long since become indispensable worldwide was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. He, who worked for Eastman Kodak until 2009, has been telling his story in lectures around the globe ever since. The father of two, whose revolutionary invention did not make him a multi-millionaire himself, lives with his wife Cynthia in Rochester (New York State).

Interview November 2015

Disinterest instead of euphoria: when a groundbraking invention dissapeared in the safe


The Romanian-French sculptor Constantin Brancusi said about his creation process: “Things are not difficult to make. What is difficult is, putting yourself in the state of mind to make them.“ Before the creativity, there is intuition. Where does this intuition come from, what sparks it? How does it manifest itself – is it only a vague idea or tangible (for example, in pictures)?

With me, I guess, it starts with a vision or a dream in the form of a picture. It sometimes is in the form of an image of the to-bi-invented device and other times in the image of he user experience being.

Is the timeframe of intuition only temporary or can it be supported by external factors? Inspiration is supported by external factors, intuition is based on internal (conscious versus sub-conscious).

For me, the inventive process starts and stops repeatedly in sort of a constant revisiting process of the “idea”. Intuition can occur in an instant, usually with a suddenly clear vision of solution that is a new way of looking at the challenge. This is usually followed by a revisiting of the new thought at later times with a longer period of effort to modify/simply the idea. As the idea solidifies in your thoughts, the efforts turn towards trying to break the idea, find its limits or failure modes. This requires you to change your thinking from how the idea will succeed to how it could fail. Both ways of thinking require imagination.

Is intuition reliant on spontaneity or is it possible to engage this spiritual resource at any time, consciously? If so, how?

To me, the intuitive idea occurs when you look at a problem from a completely different way. It requires you to put yourself in an „uncomfortable“ perspective, one you are not used to being in when addressing a problem. It exposes your biases and causes you to think differently. This reminds me of the old expression „It’s not thing you don’t know that get you in trouble, it’s the things you do know that just aren’t so“! Maybe the intuitive moment is just a brief escape from your sure-you-know.

Do calm and relaxation further the „best“ or is a tight deadline a stimulant for creativity?

Deadliness get you focused on the problem. They also force a sort of efficiency to your process that may not be helpful to an original solution. To be creative, it requires you to be focused on the problem, but to be open to new ways of addressing a solution. Too often, in pressured environments truly original solutions get abandoned, because of perceived solution timelines being too long.

Which place/what environment is best for the creation/work process?

Anywhere, where your thoughts can focus on the issue.

Before intuition is inspiration the primary catalyst? If so, what inspires you?

I think, an individual’s passion is the source of their inspiration. I love simplification and that drives me to think this way.

According to Philip Roth, “amateurs wait for inspiration while professionals sit down and work.” How do you feel about that?

This is about how you choose to focus on the problem. I very rarely have ideas that “just come to me”. They usually come after putting effort into trying to envision the problem from a new perspective.

How do you separate the good from the bad and how do you know which ideas to explore further, which ones are maybe even ahead of their time, visionary ideas and which aren't?

Good ideas stand the text of time, by which I mean, the constant set of challenges you have submit your ideas to as you refine them. A good idea may take a long time to mature (digital photography took 30 years to come from invention to reality), but it is still a good idea at the right time.

Which key criterias does the idea need to be viable?

Useful and understandable.

Do you write down an idea right away, because you might forget?

Generally, you get a picture in your mind and that is pretty unforgettable. Usually writing it down comes, when you are trying to communicate the idea to somebody else.

How long do you ponder an idea before creatively working on it?

It can be minutes to years – depends on circumstances.


According to novel-price-awarded author Nelly Sachs “everything starts with yearning.” Do you agree?

I think so. You have to want it to be true before you begin to make it so. A great idea “feels” good. It appeals to your interests and passion. That’s why you keep coming back to it as it matures in your thought-process.

Is it magic and fun or torture/blood, sweat & tears to be creative?

I would describe it as very satisfying. Finding an elegant solution to a problem or challenge is an emotional reward.

What is the process like from theory/idea to a practical creation?

Tons of work. There are many more dead-end-experiences than “light at the end of the tunnel”-events. Inventors spend most of their time being “wrong”. They end up knowing way more about why things don’t work than why they do. During the process of the practical realization of an idea, the idea will inevitably be modified by other forces that you hadn’t anticipated. I think, it is a very humbling experience to bring an idea to commercial reality.

Can you force creativity? Are „drive“ and efficiency counterproductive?

I think, you have to want it yourself rather than be told to do it.

How do you stimulate your creativity/are there specific rituals therefore or a muse?

I find quiet, being alone with your thoughts on a problem is best. Drawing pictures of what you are envisioning, often helps.

When you are in a creative phase, are you working as if in trance?

Well, I would call it “focused”, but it is a single-minded effort on creating and testing your vision.

Which is better for creativity: discipline and structured time-management or idleness?

Whatever environment that supports curiosity is best, I think.

Does age and life experience help with creativity or is a younger mind more creative, because it is fresh and untouched by experience? Does age equal more creativity? What about social / cultural heritage?

I think, the younger mind has more “sparks” of ideas, the older mind explores and tests them better.

Do you archive certain ideas to maybe check back when you are in a less creative phase?

Yes, new ideas often are put on my “mental shelf”. There are many reasons for this, but for me, it is because I can’t give it the due concentration at the moment.

Did you ever revisit an older idea, that you thought would be worthless but it turned out to be great/good? If so, why do you think that is?

Yes, it is because something has changed about the situation or how you are viewing the situation around the idea.

Is it better to be creative on your own, only trust your own instinct, or in a team? However, in a team - how much of your own, personal idea is really left afterwards?

I think, teams are the best way to test ideas. Every idea undergoes changes and within a team-environment these changes are often quick to happen.

Is it true talent to trust other people to fill the gaps of your own deficits/ lack in creativity to produce something significant/great?

Not sure to call it a talent. I would call it a necessity. Every great idea undergoes an evolution as it goes from invention reality. I think, it is a big mistake for inventors to think they have to invent everything or very step in the evolution of an idea.

Who’s leading in the creativity-process: craftsmanship or spontaneous intuition/inspiration?

I define a craftsman as one who is an expert at manipulating the “known”. When you get to the limits of the “known”, you need a leap to get to the next step that requires innovative thinking either by the craftsman or the non-craftsman. It’s the type of thinking that needs to change, not the talent or experience of the thinker!

If you would make a pie-chart: How are emotion, mind and commercial interests split in percentages when it comes to the creative process?

My initial answer (without deliberating too much on it) is: curiosity 20%, disciplined work-ethic 50%, humility 20%, sense of humour 10%.

What is the individual satisfaction based on: a) self-realization and individual fulfilment, b) the (artistic) recognition or c) commercial success?

I think, it had better be a), because the other two (b & c) depend on other and external factors, which may not ever happen.

What is your personal motivation for creative activity?

Seeing something I envision come into being (I guess that is like an artist).

Which roles play aspects such as sincerity, authenticity, self-doubt when it comes to creativity and are they useful for the creative process?

I never worry about perfection, too much burden for any idea!

Can routine, experience and professionalism make up for lack of creativity? And if so - how much?

They help in dealing with and nurturing new ideas, but not so much in creating them.

How is it possible to stay true to yourself artistically, but stay innovative at the same time? Can you keep re-inventing yourself without renouncing/denying your style?

I think, inventors spend their time focused on their idea rather than themselves (or how they are perceived). I guess that is why they are known as bad dressers.

Are creative people especially sensitive, because they have a particular feeling?

If they are sensitive, it is because that they feel others don’t see what they see. This is why working on communicating your idea is almost as important.

When does the time come to end the creative process, to set the finalized work free - or is there a never-ending possibility of improvement?

Practically you have to “freeze the design” at some point. This allows the commercialization process to proceed. New ideas will be implemented in the next iteration of the idea. At this point the evolution goes in steps.


Is there an individual prototype for success? In short: Is success projectable?

I think, any presentation of a new concept or idea needs to be done with the spirit of flexibility. Often we want to paint a future of certainty with respect to the impact of the invention, but this is always just a construction to help others get on board with the idea. The reality is that the idea will change as it matures to reality. This recognition of change has to be part of the description of the idea.

When something is successful, how big is the temptation to recycle it, to repeat the successful prototype and not develop further?

That will happen. The more successful the original idea, the more this will happen.

How do you stay open to critique despite success?

You must get comfortable with the questions and challenges. It is a sure sign you are being listened to. If you are not being challenged, no one is paying attention (= bad sign)!

Do you have to be driven, do you have to be addicted to achieve the next time, what didn’t work this time?

I think, you have to be driven to see the result you envision. If addiction is involved, it is an addiction to your curiousity about the concept.

How do you deal with a moment, where your individual, perfect work has been created, maybe has been praised and nominated with all possible awards – what will be next? Or is the personal peak also “the end”?

Failure is underrated! You learn so much from that! Expect that whatever success you achieve, it will create the opportunity to try again. Reputations can get in the way of innovation, when fear of failure drives actions. Maybe that’s why young inventors are so effective, they don’t have the burden of having a reputation.

What is the reason for being successful over a long period of time and all of a sudden the success is gone? Is this a matter of the contemporary tase and changing time in general or is it just a natural development that once one is on top for some time, there’s only one way – down?

Everything evolves, even the definition of success. You have to keep focused on your vision and realize that your vision may or may not have appeal over time!

How do you deal with failure? Is it important to have perseverance, because success might come later on?

Perseverance is critical. Your idea will be challenged from many directions, expect that. That is the nature of innovation. Don’t look at failure as a verdict, rather look at it as an opportunity to do it better next time!

How do you deal with a moment, when your individual, perfect work has been created, maybe even has been praised and nominated with all possible awards – what will be next? Or is the personal peak also “the end”?

Public recognition is nice, but can’t compare to seeing your idea come to reality!


“The invention of the digital camera. I was motivated to see, if I could build a “all electronic”-still-picture-camera that did not use film or paper in the course of it providing a photographic experience to the customer. Nothing was “consumed” in the process. I was also motivated to see, if I could create a camera-device that had no moving mechanical parts. Both of these motivations were at odds with the existing way of doing photography at the time. It seemed to be a more elegant and/or efficient way of doing photography, if it could be accomplished. I guess, I was motivated by simplification as seen by the user.”

Steve Sasson and his invention, the digital camera's prototype
My favorite work: Steve Sasson and his invention, the digital camera's prototype

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