herald

Monday 25 September 2017

Device

The world's biggest film company has filed for bankruptcy, beaten by the digital revolution. The irony is, writes David Usborne, that Kodak could have been the first to launch the digital camera...

When companies go bust, we, the customers, rarely pay much heed. It's all about judges, restructuring and then, if they are lucky, their re-emerging in some shrunken form to carry on as if nothing had happened. Not so in the case of Kodak, which is now taking the walk of ignominy to the bankruptcy court

For this is a company we care about -- at least if we were born before 1986 or so, when Kodak was at the peak of its commercial powers.

A hundred years earlier George Eastman, the company's founder, had invented roll film, which replaced photographic plates and allowed photography to become a hobby of the masses.

Kodak did not quite own the 20th century, but it did become the curator of our memories.

"One of the interesting parts of this bankruptcy story is everyone's saddened by it," notes Robert Burley, professor of photography at Ryerson University in Toronto. "There's a kind of emotional connection to Kodak for many people. You could find that name inside every household and, in the last five years, it's disappeared."

But 1986 was arguably also the year when Kodak, a company that for so long was the emblem of industrial innovation, began to be eaten by others, notably from Japan, who learnt to innovate too -- and more quickly.

Kodak was the great inventor. In 1900, it unveiled the Box Brownie camera. "You push the button, we do the rest," ran the advertising campaign.

Kodachrome film, the standard for movie-makers as well as generations of still photographers because of its incredible definition and archival longevity, was introduced in 1936.

There was also the Instamatic, the camera with the little cartridges of film that spared us the fumbling of trying to get film to spool properly. Between 1963 and 1970 the company sold 50 million of those.

The trouble began 20 years ago, with the decline of film photography. In the 1990s, Kodak poured billions into developing technology for taking pictures using mobile phones and other digital devices.

But it held back from developing digital cameras for the mass market for fear of killing its all-important film business. Others, such as the Japanese firm Canon, rushed in.

So who invented the digital camera? Ironically, Kodak did -- or, rather, a company engineer called Steve Sasson, who put together a toaster-sized contraption that could save images using electronic circuits.

The images were transferred onto a tape cassette and were viewable by attaching the camera to a TV screen, a process that took 23 seconds.

It was an astonishing achievement. And it happened in 1975, long before the digital age.

Mr Sasson and his colleagues were met with blank faces when they unveiled their device to Kodak's bosses. Even he didn't fully see its potential.

"It is funny now to look back on this project and realise that we were not really thinking of this as the world's first digital camera," Mr Sasson was later to write on a company blog.

"We were looking at it as a distant possibility. A line from the technical report written at the time sums it up best: 'The camera described in this report represents a first attempt demonstrating a photographic system which may, with improvements in technology, substantially impact the way pictures will be taken in the future.' But in reality, we had no idea." For Kodak's leaders, going digital meant killing film, smashing the company's golden egg.

Mr Sasson saw in hindsight that he had not exactly won them over: "In what has got to be one of the most insensitive choices of demonstration titles ever, we called it 'Film-less Photography'.

"Talk about warming up your audience!"



POTENTIAL

Even before film began to fade, other manufacturers, notably Fuji, were nibbling at the company's dominance: at the 1984 Olympics it was Fuji that supplied the official film.

And its efforts in the last 10 years to shift its focus to consumer and industrial printers have faltered: the company has posted losses in six of the last seven years.

In 1976, Kodak sold 90pc of the photographic film in the US and 85pc of the cameras; 10 years later it still employed 145,000 people worldwide compared with a global payroll today of 18,000.

Historians may one day conclude that most of the company's slow unravelling can be traced to the failure of its leaders to recognise the huge potential of Mr Sasson's invention.

Don Strickland, a former vice-president, put it this way: "We developed the world's first consumer digital camera but we could not get approval to launch or sell it because of fear of the effects on the film market."

Promoted articles

Entertainment News