20th May 2024

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Technology and Computer

Why we should all salute the Apple QuickTake 100, the first real digital camera | Technology News

In 1994, Steve Jobs had long left Apple, the internet was still a geek’s playground, and Tom Hanks had just finished Forrest Gump, which went on to win six Oscars that year. Apple, meanwhile, was busy revolutionising the digital camera landscape in a way no one could have imagined. That same year, Cupertino released the QuickTake 100, the first colour digital camera aimed at consumers. It was pretty radical. But that’s also what made it so important – after all, this camera introduced “digital” in photography and opened wider acceptability of digital cameras as we know them today. This week marks the thirtieth anniversary of the QuickTake 100, a camera that may be forgotten but remains integral to digital photography.

The history of digital cameras dates back to the 1960s. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) engineer Eugene Lally described the use of mosaic photosensors to digitise light signals and produce still images. Unfortunately, the technology was not ready yet, but the idea of a filmless camera had already been conceptualised. In fact, the word “pixel” was the invention of the brilliant NASA scientist. It was only a decade later that Texas Instruments employee Willis Adcock patented a proposal for a digital camera.

NASA The idea of digital photography was conceptualized by engineer Eugene Lally at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. (Image credit: NASA)

The first digital camera

However, the first digital still camera was developed by Eastman Kodak engineer Steven Sasson in 1975. Sasson, who was in his twenties at that time, had just started a job at Kodak. Although new to the company, Sasson was kept busy with non-important work until he got the idea of using CCD imaging sensors and came up with something interesting. “Hardly anybody knew I was working on this because it wasn’t that big of a project,” Sasson later recalled to the New York Times’ Lens Blog. “It wasn’t secret. It was just a project to keep me from getting into trouble doing something else, I guess.”

His project later resulted in a prototype digital camera weighing nearly 4 kg. It was built from a movie camera lens, an analog/digital converter, a CCD imaging area array, dozens of digital and analog circuits wired together on six circuit boards, and 16 batteries. It captured black-and-white pictures on a digital cassette tape with a resolution of 0.01 megapixels. It took 23 seconds to take the first digital photograph.

Kodak Steve Sasson, the Kodak engineer invented the first digital camera in 1975. (Image credit: Kodak)

Sasson’s camera was a breakthrough, but Kodak never seized the opportunity to develop a digital camera and instead continued to sell film cameras. The years that followed saw the launch of cameras that used CCD sensors, or charged-couple devices. This technology, invented in 1969, helped digital photography grow. However, it was Sony that produced the first true digital camera with a prototype Mavica model in 1981. Billed as the world’s first electronic still video camera, the Sony Mavica, which looked like a modern SLR, featured CCD chips to record images onto a 2×2-inch floppy disk that could hold around 25 frames.

Festive offer

Around the same time, the University of Calgary Canada ASI Science Team developed a digital camera, which many hailed as the first true digital camera. Called the Fairchild All-Sky camera, it was used to photograph auroras in the sky. What made the Fairchild All-Sky camera different (and also special) was the ability to record digital data rather than analog. Later, in 1988, the FUJIX DS-1P debuted using a CCD sensor, but it was the first to store its images on an SRAM internal memory rather than on tape. Although the DS-1P was a prototype, Fujifilm went on to commercially release the camera a year later in the form of the DS-X. The first digital camera to go on sale in the US was the Dycam Model 1 in 1990.

The beginning of the digital software ecosystem

The early ’90s not only the rise of digital cameras but also the creation of a software ecosystem supporting digital photography. JPEG and MPEG standards were created for digital image and audio files. At the same time, the first image-manipulation program for Macintosh, Digitial Darkroom, was launched in 1988. Meanwhile, the first iteration of Adobe PhotoShop for Mac arrived in 1990.

Adobe Adobe shipped the first commercial version of Photoshop for Mac in 1990. It was a Mac exclusive. (Image credit: Adobe)

The launch of Apple QuickTake 100

Although Apple was known for its Macintosh personal computers, its entry into digital cameras had surprised many. This was the Apple of the ’90s, a confused company (and not led by Jobs) that dabbled in many product categories to stay relevant.
The digital camera market was a new territory for Apple with no expertise. That’s why Apple sought the help of Kodak to develop the QuickTake 100.

Unveiled on February 17, 1994, at the Tokyo Macworld, and released on June 20, 1994, the QuickTake 100 was the first colour digital camera consumers could buy for less than $1,000, a big deal at the time.

Ken Parulski, who spent 31 years at Eastman Kodak and retired from the company in 2012 as chief scientist, recalled in a LinkedIn post ahead of the QuickTake 100’s 30th anniversary how Kodak was heavily involved in the development of the camera alongside Apple. While Cupertino worked on the design and marketing of the QuickTake 100 , it was Kodak that developed the camera architecture. In fact, this camera was manufactured by Kodak’s manufacturing partner Chinon.

The QuickTake 100 had a binocular-like design; it was easy to hold two-handed, and the gray shell was similar to Apple’s PowerBooks of the time. But it was the camera with the best possible specs of the time. It could capture up to 32 images at 320×240 resolution (0.08 megapixels) or 8 high-resolution photos at 640×480 (0.31 megapixels). The camera came with a fixed-focus lens that gave it an angle of view equivalent to a 50mm lens on a 35mm camera. There was no zoom and no focus, but one could take low-light photos with a built-in flash. It was powered by three AA batteries. The device also featured an optical viewfinder and an LCD info display on which to adjust settings, but there was no way one could review photos on the camera. For that, you needed to connect the camera to a Mac using a serial cable.

The QuickTake 100 was succeeded by the QuickTake 150, which used better file compression technology to store up to 16 of the best-quality images. The camera was again manufactured by Kodak and was similar to its predecessor in design. Apple then released the QuickTake 200 in 1996 with a removable 2MB SmartMedia flashRAM card. The design was reminiscent of a traditional camera with a 1.8-inch diagonal color LCD screen on the back for previewing photos. This time, however, the camera was built by Fujifilm and not Kodak.

Apple The QuickTake 200 had a 1.8-inch LCD display and a mode dial but limited aperture and focus adjustment. (Image credit: Ebay Auctions)

Admittedly, Apple’s experiment to crack the digital camera market came to an end upon Steve Jobs’ return to the Cupertino company in 1997. He terminated many existing product lines and underdevelopment projects, including the QuickTake. Even though the QuickTake camera line was not hugely popular, it paved the way for making digital cameras more accessible to consumers. No wonder Apple QuickTake 100 was named one of Time Magazine’s “All TIME 100 Gadgets” in 2010.

Three decades after its introduction, the QuickTake 100 may have been forgotten but it remains an important part of Apple’s history. Fast forward to today, you may have an iPhone, and its camera is at the height of the digital camera revolution. But one must always remember where it all began if you are a die-hard Apple fan. It all started with the Apple QuickTake. So Happy 30th QuickTake 100!