Top Ten Milestones in Modern Camera Technology – As Reported by Popular Science

At some point in the last year, it was brought to my attention that vintage issues of Popular Science magazine have been scanned and are now freely available through Google Books. Included are all past issues from 1926 through 1999 – in their entirety. Let the geekery begin! This week, I decided to take a walk down memory lane and relive the evolution of the camera based on Popular Science’s first hand reporting.  In this article, we’ve compiled some highlights.  So get ready to smell that developer, wind that film, and take a walk down memory lane.

Note: Click the links to bring up the original articles.

1. The Age of the SLR

The Year: 1962

The Story: Although SLR cameras had already been around for decades, they really started hitting their stride in the 1960′s. In 1962, Popular Science wrote this article on the state of the SLR camera and its advantages over rangefinders.

How far we’ve come: Not very far! The price of a “fast 50″ lens in 1962 was roughly the same as it is today.



2. First CCD

The Year: 1969

The Story: Two Bells Labs employees, William Boyle and George Smith, invented the CCD in 1969 . While it took over a decade for the device to be commercialized, the CCD was the mainstay of digital imaging until the CMOS sensor finally gained traction in the 1990′s. In 2009, Boyle and Smith were awarded the Nobel Prize for their work on CCD.  In 1982, when CCD imaging was finally materializing for consumers, Popular Science published this article.

Prescient thought: “A youngster could watch a TV monitor in one room and see himself ‘driving around’ in another room.”

How far we’ve come: “So called large-area CCD’s, designed for standard camera lenses….are 512 by 320 pixels.” (That’s 0.1 MP for those scoring at home.)



3. First Autofocus Consumer Camera

The Year: 1977

The Story: While Leica was the first to patent several varieties of autofocus systems, they never implemented it – thinking that their users were quite capable of focusing on their own. Meanwhile, Konica shipped the first consumer autofocus camera with a module invented by a Honeywell engineer.

Prescient thought: “I’m convinced that the VA/F system will have worked a minor revolution in still photography and a major one in movie photography.”

Interesting Fact: The first autofocus systems forced the spot in the center of the frame to be in focus, no matter what. No recomposing was allowed and there was no way to turn the autofocus off. “It’s probably nothing that will ever bother you, but you can’t take a picture with the object in the center out of focus. There is no way to override the automatic focusing.”



4. The PC Era Begins

The Year: 1978

The Story: Where would digital photography be without personal computers? In 1977, Apple released the Apple II – the computer widely credited with starting the PC revolution. The machine boasted a 1 MHz processor, 4KB of RAM, and an audio cassette recorder for saving programs. In 1978, Popular Science did a side by side comparison of the Apple II with the (also popular) Radio Shack TRS-80.

Prescient thought: “The Apple is an excellent machine with lots of capability, but be forewarned that it can worm its way into your pocketbook quickly.”

How far we’ve come: “One interesting feature of the Radio Shack unit is the ‘file save’ command.”



5. First Kodak Digital Camera

The Year: 1991

The Story: Kodak, in an ironic twist that would eventually obsolete their film business, introduced its first digital camera in 1991. At a cost of $19,995, the 1.3MP CCD equipped camera was marketed towards government agencies.

How far we’ve come: “A storage unit, carried in a case has a 200 MB hard disk to store…158 uncompressed pictures.”

Interesting Fact: Instead of building their own cameras, Kodak opted to retrofit the already popular Nikon F3 with their digital sensor.




6. First Professional Digital Cameras

The Year: 1992

The Story: By 1992, USA Today photographers were wowing the world by shooting the Oscars with a digital camera and transmitting the images back to the editor through phone lines. Made for high-end markets, these cameras ranged in price from $3000 to $25,000 and topped out at one megapixel.

How far we’ve come: “Kodak reports a rejection rate of 95 out of 100 CCDs manufactured for its DCS camera.”

Ironic quote: “Will the average Joe on the street get a digital camera? Probably. But I really don’t see him retouching Aunt Mabel’s wrinkles….it’s too complicated.”


7. Emergence of Consumer Digital Cameras

The Year: 1994

The Story: Although sky-high in price and virtually featureless, digital cameras were already making waves in 1994. Popular Science offered a somewhat skeptical view of the new technology by reviewing the Apple Quicktake 100 ($749) and the Logitech Fotoman ($799).

How far we’ve come: “ becomes quickly apparent that neither [camera] comes close to the quality of 35mm film.”



8. First LCD cameras

The Year: 1995

The Story: The first crack in the foundation of film photography started when consumers caught on to the first appealing feature of digital cameras – instant picture review. In this article, a Popular Science writer takes the Casio QV-10 out for a spin, breaking it in the process.

Prescient thought: “A grandmother traveling by plane could turn on the screen…’Would you like to see a close-up of those baby dimples, dear? Press here’.”

How far we’ve come: “If you want to zoom in on an image before pressing the shutter, use a built-in flash, and rely on the neighborhood photo finisher for prints or slides, you’ll need a film-based camera.”


9. CMOS sensors finally hit the stage

The Year: 1997

The Story: After years of a largely CCD dominated market, the low cost of CMOS manufacturing finally pushed CMOS sensors to the forefront. Enter the age of the consumer digital camera.

How far we’ve come: “Images from Sound Vision’s 800 x 1000 pixel resolution CMOS camera…nearly fill an 8.5 by 11 inch sheet of paper when printed from a PC.”



10. The modern digital SLR

The Year: 1999

The Story:  Although digital SLR cameras had been around for years, the introduction of the Nikon D1 in 1999 caused many professionals to seriously rethink the film versus digital debate.  At 2.7 megapixels and 4.5 frames per second, this camera showed that digital cameras were not just novelty items any more.

How far we’ve come: Size of the standard memory card?  64 megabytes


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