George Eastman House digital camera collection nets a 'first'

05:00 AM, Jan 28, 2013

The Eastman House plans to have a Kodak Tactical Camera from 1988 on display later this year. (Provided photo)/

Written By Matthew Daneman | Staff writer

The Eastman Kodak Co. Tactical Camera, to modern eyes, is a cumbersome and clunky collection of parts:

A Canon camera body modified with a Kodak-made image sensor inside, attached to a memory storage unit about the size of a box of saltine crackers.

And what it did, again to modern eyes, is almost primitive — all that for black-and-white, somewhat grainy one-megapixel photos.

But if you consider the family tree of commercially available digital cameras today, “this is the base,” said Todd Gustavson, curator of technology at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film.

Gesturing to the camera unit sitting on a table in a museum office, Gustavson said, “I’m putting this in the same kind of class as the half-dozen most important things in the (museum’s) collection.”

The museum is in the process of restoring a Tactical Camera it received in recent months, with the aim of putting it on display later this year.

Designations like “oldest” and “first” are often filled with caveats. And while the Tactical is likely the oldest existing truly digital camera — one of only two ever built, back in 1988 — that designation has a number of asterisks. For one, there were other digital cameras being made at the time, though they were usually affixed to something, like a computer, instead of being portable like the Tactical. For another, the Tactical actually came on the heels of another Kodak product, the Electro-Optic camera. Kodak built one of those in 1987 for the U.S. government. That EO, however, is MIA.

Nobody knows where it is today,” said James McGarvey, who spent 32 years as a key engineer for Kodak in the field digital camera design of before leaving last year and becoming a senior systems engineer with Brighton’s D3 Engineering. McGarvey said when he tried to track down the EO half a dozen years ago, “I couldn’t find any leads.”

The EO and Tactical were born when the U.S. government came to Kodak — which had developed a CCD digital image sensor — asking if that sensor could be put into a camera. While the EO was for the government, the two Tacticals were done as demonstration units to show other potential government buyers, McGarvey said.

The EO and Tactical then evolved into Kodak’s Hawkeye II systems and eventually its professional digital photography business.

In the history of digital photography, the Tactical “is sort of the equivalent (Louis Daguerre) would have used before he went public with his process,” Gustavson said.

At the same time, other companies also were bursting into the digital photography space. The Sony Mavica, dating back to 1981, is often considered the first electronic camera on the market, though it essentially was a video camera that recorded still images on videotape and then digitized those images in an external piece of hardware.

Kodak at the time had worked out a similar model but never released it because of image quality issues, Gustavson said.

The Tactical and EO were arguably Kodak’s second major milestones in digital photography, with the first being in 1975 when company researchers Steve Sasson and Gareth Lloyd invented the world’s first digital camera — an eight-pound contraption larger than a big shoebox.

The EO and Tactical were built independent of Sasson and Lloyd. “That first camera was in a backroom somewhere and little known at Kodak in the late 1980s,” McGarvey said.

The hunt for the Tactical Camera started in early 2012, Gustavson said, when a collector contacted George Eastman House about acquiring a unit.

But one used to be on display years ago at Kodak’s Hawkeye plant on St. Paul Street. And that started George Eastman House and McGarvey looking into whether it still existed, Gustavson said.

McGarvey said he talked to Exelis Inc. friends — Exelis having bought Kodak’s remote sensing business nine years ago — and they located the Tactical memory storage unit that had been on display.

Exelis spokeswoman Irene Lockwood said the Tactical Camera equipment had been packed up for transportation out of Hawkeye to Exelis facilities either on Lexington Avenue or Rochester Technology Park.

They were literally two days away from the dumpster,” McGarvey said. “It was lucky we caught it in time.”

Exelis finished exiting the historic Hawkeye plant on St. Paul Street in December.

With that external memory unit as a start, the museum started recreating the Tactical from various old parts, an old Canon and one of those original sensors.

Today, the museum’s Tactical Camera is not quite done. Once a piece is anodized, Gustavson said the plan is to make an image with the camera and then put the Kodak on display.

It’s very cool, absolutely,” McGarvey said.

When working on the EO and then the Tactical, “I was walking around outside, taking pictures. I thought, ‘This is the beginning of something,’ though I had no idea what it would turn into.”