Still remember the first time you stood stock-still for a family photo, unsure how, exactly, you were going to fake a smile? You probably don’t remember, because family photos have been around for just as long as cameras have been affordable – over 100 years. The first commercially affordable camera was the Kodak “Brownie” (seen above), manufactured in 1900.
But the understanding that a small pinhole could be used to focus an inverted image in a dark room was around as far back as 500BC, when Chinese philosopher Mo Ti noted it in his writings. He documented how he traced the inverted image to produce a rough but proportional version of the real thing.
This primitive camera, called a camera obscura (Latin for “darkened room”), was also mentioned by Aristotle. He used it to safely observe a partial solar eclipse in 330 BC, because even back then all the cool kids were watching solar eclipses. Unfortunately, very little progress was made on the camera obscura over the next millenium. In 1544 a mathematician by the name of Reiners Gemma Frisius also used a similar camera to view a solar eclipse and highly recommended it as an aid for drawing. Clearly, he didn’t realize Aristotle had beat him to it by about 1200 years.
These room-sized cameras remained the norm (especially considering the word camera means “room”) for a very long time. I bet it was sort of like going to a private movie screening. You got together with a few of your friends, put on your tunics and trousers, and met together to look at inverted images in the local camera obscura.
Fortunately, people soon caught on and realized that cameras didn’t have to be room-sized. Less than 300 years later, in 1816, a forward-thinking man by the name of Nicephore Niepce created a portable, wooden camera and a piece of paper coated with silver chloride to develop the first photograph (because silver chloride darkened in the presence of light). Unfortunately, consistent viewing of the silver chloride image – you guessed it – darkened the rest of the image until it became imperceptible.
This issue was resolved a few decades later by Louis Daguerre in 1836, who invented the famed daguerreotype, the first permanent photograph. Daguerre realized the solution to the overexposure problem would be a photographic medium that darkened in the presence of light only under certain conditions. He achieved this by coating a copper plate with silver, then treating it with iodine vapor to make it light-sensitive. The resulting image was developed using mercury vapor and fixed in place with a strong salt solution. The first true photograph was born, and with it, the first true camera.
But, as you can imagine, those chemicals were not cheap. It would still be a while before cameras became commercially viable.
Progress was made with the development of collodion dry plates in 1855 and gelatin dry plates in 1871 (they did away with many of the necessary chemicals, at least in the photographing process), and the rest of the 19th century was spent developing smaller and smaller cameras – some as small as pocket watches.
With the development of increasingly smaller and better cameras that required shorter exposure times came the mechanical shutter. In the days of the olden cameras, exposure was controlled with sliding slats (which you’ve no doubt seen in movies like Gone With The Wind), but the technique was too unwieldy for smaller cameras. The mechanical shutter was the natural response to the proliferation of portable cameras and faster image-capture techniques.
It wasn’t until 1885, however, that a man by the name of George Eastman invented photographic film, a mass produced type of film that became a total game changer for the industry. His first camera, meant to be used with his photographic film, was called the Kodak, released in 1888. He followed up the Kodak in 1900 with the Brownie, which was so cheap and popular that versions of it remained in stores until the 1960s.
Kodak not only made cameras affordable to the general public, their manufacturing techniques quickly made movie cameras a commercial reality. In other words, if not for Kodak’s early 20th century pioneering, camcorders (and by extension, online video) wouldn’t have been feasible.
The rest of the 20th century camera narrative is beyond the scope of this post, but it comes down to a period of innovation driven in large part by the competition between Kodak and its competitors, namely Canon and Nikon. 35mm film became trendy, cameras got increasingly smaller, and film was developed faster and faster. Polaroid’s instant cameras went on sale in 1948. 20 years later, in 1968, Phillips Lab created the first digital camera, and the rest is history. Kodak is now a far cry from its glory days, and camera/recorders are being integrated into everything from phones to Google Glass.
Who knows? 20 years from now, all of us could have cameras in our contacts.