Who Invented the Camera?
A 17th-century illustration of camera obscura.
CREDIT: Public domain
The modern camera is an optical device that records and stores images that can be transmitted to another place or reproduced at a later time. Cameras today are more often a feature of dazzling technology – a phone, a car, a robot on Mars – than a celebrated technology itself.
The invention of the camera was not so much a one-time milestone, but rather an evolution of optics and photographic processes. In fact, cameras were evolving even before the invention of photography. It was once more common to step inside a camera than carry one.
Discovering the dark room
Mo-Ti, a Chinese philosopher living in the fifth century B.C., conceived the pinhole camera when he noticed that a small hole ina wall of a dark room will project an upside-down image of the scene outside on the opposite wall. A few centuries later, Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) and other ancient Greek thinkers described the same phenomenon. But the Arabian scholar Ibn al-Haytham wrote the most detailed ancient account of the camera obscura (Latin for "dark room").
Al-Haytham, Latinized as Alhazen, was born in A.D. 965 in Basra, present-day Iraq, and later moved to Egypt. His scientific writings expound on the camera obscura, how the eye works, how light refracts through water and how to solve for the angle of reflection of a beam of light. Al-Haytham's work influenced knowledge of optics in Europe.
Some of the most famous thinkers in Renaissance Europe made use of the camera obscura including Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and the astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), who made a portable tent into a camera obscura to observe the skies.
The design of cameras obscura continued to improve. In 1568, Venetian nobleman Daniel Barbaro described how to get a superior image by inserting a glass lens in the camera's opening. Fellow Italian Girolamo Cardano further explained how a bi-convex lens (meaning both sides of a lens are rounded outward) could increase the sharpness and intensity of images.
By 1686, a monk named Johann Zahn described several types of portable cameras that used lenses and mirrors. Now a box just a few feet long could capture an image and reflect it right-side up to the viewer. But people still had to trace the images cameras produced. That is, until photography was invented. [Video: Build a Shoebox Pinhole Camera]
The first photographs
The first known photograph was captured in Gras, France, in 1826. It was a view from the second-story window of Joseph Nicéphore Niépce and took eight hours of exposure. Niépce was born in 1765 and survived the French Revolution despite being the son of a counselor to King Louis XVI. Niépce's early photography experiments used paper soaked in a solution of silver chloride, which turns darker when exposed to light. A second chemical treatment is needed to stop the exposure and fix the image on the paper.
In 1829, Niépce began collaborating with Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, who continued experiments after Niépce's death in 1833. Building on Niépce's work, Daguerre shortened the exposure time and found chemical treatments to make sharper images.
Daguerre announced a working photograph system in 1839, the same year that an Englishman, William Henry Fox Talbot, debuted his calotype photographs. Calotypes used paper and made negatives that could print copies. Daguerreotypes used metal plates and each photo was an original. But Daguerreotypes dominated early photography in part thanks to a clever compromise by the French government. While Talbot patented his system, the French government paid Daguerre for the rights to the Daguerreotype and then disseminated manuals to the public.
As photography evolved past the Daguerreotype, so did the camera. Sensitive film led to shutters that controlled exposure time. Flexible film led to rollers. First flash powder, then flash bulbs allowed photographers to take pictures in low light. Later, sophisticated cameras came with adjustable apertures (the opening to let in light), adjustable focus (movable lenses) and light meters.
Photography became more sophisticated after Daguerre, who died in 1851, but it also became more accessible. The U.S. Census recorded 938 professional photographers in 1850. By 1890, the United States had 20,000 professional photographers. At the turn of the 19th century, one man in particular had a significant hand in making photography accessible to the masses.
Brownies and beyond
George Eastman, founder of Eastman Kodak, was born in upstate New York in 1854. His father died when he was a child and age 14 he left school and started working to support his mother and two sisters. After working his way up to a junior clerk at the Rochester Savings Bank, Eastman bought some photography equipment as a hobby. Soon Eastman went into business preparing dry-plates (the current film) for photographers.
In 1888, he introduced the Kodak camera, which came with pre-loaded film and the option of a film development service. Hence the slogan “You push the button, we do the rest.”Ten years later, he introduced the Brownie. The Kodak camera sold for $15, which was expensive at the time. But the Brownie sold for $1 or less and was portable — just 5 inches long and 3 inches high. Kodak sold 100 versions of the Brownie from its debut in 1900 until the last model in 1980.
Eastman never married and anonymously gave money to schools, colleges and the arts. He died in 1932, at the age of 77 by taking his own life. He was suffering from a spinal condition that had painfully struck his own mother.
Eastman brought cameras to the masses, but several other companies also greatly contributed to advances in photography. In the mid-1920s, the Ernst Leitz optical company in Germany designed a small, lightweight and durable camera that used 35 mm-wide film. The small film allowed photographers to take sharp, clear images with a light camera and increase the size of the photo in later development. Leica, a combination of the name Leitz and camera, remains a popular brand today. The flexible film that made Brownies and Leica's possible also contributed to cameras for moving pictures.
Pictures that move
The first movie ever made shows the family of inventor Louis Le Prince walking in circles around a garden in Leeds, England, in 1888. Le Prince was born in 1841 and came to learn about photography through his father's friendship with none other than Daguerre, according to the U.K. National Museum.
Le Prince's camera used a single lens with electromagnetic shutters, which could open and close with the speed necessary to capture enough frames for a convincing moving picture. But Le Prince mysteriously disappeared in 1890, two years after those shots at Leeds. Le Prince boarded a train from a visit with his brother in Dijon, France, and was never seen again.
Le Prince was the first to patent a motion picture camera, but others were on his heels. Thomas Edison asked his employee William Kennedy Laurie Dickson to create motion picture camera in 1889. By 1891, Edison had filed for a patent for his Kinetograph and Kinetoscope.
A few decades later, Philo T. Farnsworth and Vladimir Kosma Zworykin were racing to perfect the television camera. In early television, light entering the camera hits a plate (not film) that becomes electrically charged. An electron beam in a vacuum tube traces the plate to create a measurable voltage, which is then turned into an electrical signal that can be recorded or sent to a television set.
Farnsworth gave the first public demonstration of electric television in 1928. Television cameras became smaller and lighter with time, but all cameras had a video camera tube with an electron gun until the charged-coupled device.
Digital cameras everywhere
The charged-coupled device, or CCD, has an array of tiny capacitors. As light hits the capacitors it throws off electrons and creates a charge. A circuit then reads the charge on the capacitors row by row then translates the information into computer code that can be stored or shared. Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith developed the CCD in 1969 while at Bell Labs. They later won a Nobel Prize for their work.
CCDs are far more sensitive than film and are used in telescopes (including Hubble), medical imaging and for microsurgery. CCDs also made digital cameras possible. Engineer Steven Sasson developed the digital camera with CCDs in 1975 while working for Kodak. However, the consumer market for digital cameras did not grow until the personal computer became popular. By 1991, Kodak released its Kodak Professional Digital Camera System (DCS), popular with photojournalists.
Philippe Khan was the first man to put a digital camera in a phone. He rigged it up using his cell phone, laptop, digital camera and supplies he got at the local Radio Shack. Khan snapped the first camera phone picture of his newborn daughter in 1997, starting a global camera phone boom. More than 1 billion camera phones were sold in 2011, according to the International Telecommunication Union.