Kodak DCS-100

The first-ever digital SLR to reach the consumer market.

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In 1974, Kodak Eastman engineer Steven Sasson decided to build a machine which could store photographs. It was inspired by new charge-coupled devices, or CCDs, that had just been developed by semiconductor manufacturer Fairchild.

Sasson made a contraption using parts from the Super-8 movie camera production line downstairs, a digital cassette recorder, 16 nickel cadmium batteries, a CCD array and several dozen circuit boards wired together. It recorded 0.01-megapixel black-and-white photographs to a cassette tape, which could then be displayed on a television set.

A major change in imaging was just over the horizon, Sasson realised. Based on Moore’s law, which predicts how quickly computing hardware develops, he guessed that digital photography might reach the consumer market in 15-20 years.

Kodak invested heavily in Sasson’s project. In 1991, at a gathering of nearly 500 journalists in Arles, France, it announced its revolutionary, if unwieldy, Digital Camera System.

The DCS-100 came in two parts: a Nikon F3 SLR, which had Kodak’s 1.3-megapixel KAF-1300 sensor embedded where the film usually sat, connected by cable to a bulky Digital Storage Unit. This was intended to be slung over the shoulder or worn on the hip, and it came with a free pouch for this purpose.

Its 200MB of space could store 156 RAW images or 600 jpegs, and it had a tiny LCD screen for viewing stored images, as well as a keyboard to enter captions and name photo files. The whole thing weighed seven kilograms.

“Convert to a new digital system without switching cameras,” boasted Kodak’s marketing. Nikon didn’t learn the F3 was being used in this way until it went on sale, and after instructing Kodak not to include the original F3 back in the kit—because Kodak wasn’t an authorised reseller—realised it stood to benefit from the fact that the first digital camera carried its lens mount.

Kodak targeted photojournalists, touting the DCS-100’s ability to transmit images immediately back to the newsroom. The camera made news in 1992 when AP photographer Ron Edmonds used it to cover the Democrats’ national convention in 1992—newspapers across the United States had images of Bill Clinton’s acceptance speech within five minutes of its conclusion, a staggering feat at the time.

The DCS-100 cost US$20,000—about US$35,000 today. Kodak sold 987 of them, and produced subsequent models, including Canon-badged products, but discontinued the line in 2005. In 2003, the number of digital camera sales exceeded film camera sales for the first time, the ongoing legacy of the DCS-100.