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Matinee: '1997: The Birth of the Camera Phone' Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

24 June 2017

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the 193rd in our series of Saturday matinees today: 1997: The Birth of the Camera Phone.

As we watched this four-minute "re-enactment" of a historical moment, we wondered if someone (Philippe, for example) wasn't pulling our leg. It seemed a bit contrived. The details were fuzzy, the action a bit dizzying.

It wasn't magic so much as mythology.

As the Vimeo description has it:

On June 11, 1997, Philippe Kahn created the first camera phone solution to share pictures instantly on public networks. The impetus for this invention was the birth of Kahn's daughter, when he jerry-rigged a mobile phone with a digital camera and sent photos in real time. In 2016 Time Magazine included Kahn's first camera phone photo in their list of the 100 most influential photos of all time.

In Who Invented the Camera Phone? It Depends, Michael Kanellos tackled the subject in more depth for the 10th anniversary.

He points out that Olympus had already released the Deltis VC-1100, a camera that "that let users upload digital photos over cellular and analog phone lines." That was in 1994. And in 1995, Olympus upgraded it.

Sharp built its Zaurus handheld in 1996, he continues, with a PCMCIA slot that took a camera dongle. And there were others.

What Kahn accomplished 20 years ago, though was the transmission of a digital image over a public network just after it was captured.

The first sounds you hear in this clip are a modem negotiating a connection to a server over a land line.

The second sound is Kahn talking about his realization that a Casio digital camera and a cellphone were a match made in heaven. In a voice over.

What you're watching, though, is a dramatization of the day Kahn put those two pieces together. Unfortunately he was having trouble logging onto his email server with an SMTP error.

But it's about to get more serious. His wife Sonia Lee tells him it's time. Her water broke.

In the next scene, Sonia Lee, sitting in the passenger seat of their car, reminds him to bring his phone. He forgot.

There's no WiFi in 1997, just a cell phone connection. He has to be able to dial into his email server from his computer with a wired connection between the two devices.

As he picks it up some process completes on the screen and he hesitates. He could ... Sonia Lee sounds the car horn twice. He packs up the computer and takes it along.

The pieces are in play.

There's no WiFi in 1997, just a cell phone connection. He has to be able to dial into his email server from his computer with a wired connection between the two devices.

Breathe, Philippe. Breathe.

He solders a cable together from parts scavenged from his car's audio system and is able to call in to the server in his kitchen.

He takes the photo with the Casio, which save it to his computer where he emails it over his cell phone to his list of friends and family who receive it 15 minutes after he took it.

They're amazed. The ability to instantly share photos is born.

Although, you know, the anniversary of the birth of the physical camera phone, is a subject of debate. You might not buy the Casio-computer-cell-phone relay team as qualifying.

But we have a soft spot for Kahn as the inventor of Turbo Pascal, which amused us in 1984 until we committed our software development efforts to Microsoft C. The Turbo Pascal manual was a thick paperback book -- with not a single screen shot.

Ah, the memories.

We'd picked up the software development bug writing an assembly language printer utility, moved on to business applications in dBASE II and were smitten with Turbo Pascal because it ran on the DEC Rainbow.

The original Macintosh operating system was itself written in Pascal. But C was a more efficient language with powerful libraries we had adapted to the Rainbow to develop more serious applications.

There were no classes in this stuff then. But we were for years the pseudo sysop of the San Francisco DEC Personal Computer Local User Group Fido, a bulletin board system which connected to one user at a time via modem.

We met some very fine people keeping that system running every night. And they helped us solve some tricky problems like writing directly to fast video and trapping key strokes.

One of those people was Bryan Higgins. Another was Carl Neiburger, who was an editor at the San Jose Mercury News. He also edited the Silicon Valley Rainbow, a newsletter printed on letter-sized paper on a dot-matrix printer.

We contributed quite a few articles to that publication in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Though we never met in person, Carl and I became friends.

We shared a love for getting computers to do our work for us.

Carl passed away from colon cancer in 2002 at the age of 52. His wife Christine, a cartoonist for the Mercury News, established the Carl Neiburger Foundation for Colon Cancer Awareness in his memory.

Like Kahn, many of us at a keyboard in those days were pioneers. And it always took more than one person to accomplish anything.

As Sonia Lee demonstrates in this charming re-enactment.


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