Groundbreaking Digital Camera Prototype Nearly Thrown Away as Trash


It’s ironic to the point of being tragic to think that one of the pioneers of digital camera technology was Kodak. Now bankrupt and licensing off their brand to mysterious companies, it’s easy to forget that it was Kodak that hit many of the initial milestones where digital imaging is concerned.

One of those milestones was the Kodak Tactical Camera, one of the first digital cameras ever made and very likely the oldest practical (read: semi-portable) digital camera in existence today. According to a fascinating article in the Democrat and Chronicle, however, we almost just lost this piece of camera history to a dumpster.

Made by inserting a Kodak sensor into a modified Canon film camera, the Tactical came attached to your very own ‘convenient’ shoebox memory unit. And using this set-up, you could capture a whopping 1MP black-and-white digital photo. Ok, fine, by todays standards it doesn’t really hold much of a candle to any type of imaging (digital or otherwise), but at the time this was groundbreaking stuff.

Historically, this camera sits very close to, if not at, the very root of the commercially available digital camera family tree. Only two Tacticals were ever built back in 1988, and although other digital cameras can claim the title of “first ever” digital camera, the others were either attached to a bona fide computer or digitizing videotape stills.


Sadly, historically significant as this camera is, it was only days away from the dumpster when Todd Gustavson of George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film tracked it down. Exelis Inc. bought Kodak’s remote imaging business some nine years ago, and were in the final stages of clearing out the building where this unit was on display.

According to former Kodak engineer James McGarvey, “They were literally two days away from the dumpster, it was lucky we caught it in time.”

The camera is still in the process of being fully restored, but once it is, they’ll take a photo with it and then retire it to a glass case where no dumpsters will threaten its existence. For more details on the hunt for this camera and a lot of interesting facts about digital photography’s first baby steps, be sure to check out the full Democrat and Chronicle feature here.

George Eastman House digital camera collection nets a ‘first’ [Democrat and Chronicle]

  • John Goldsmith

    Neat. But if Kodak was on a house cleaning binge, just imagine the other fun-but-not-so-precious-gear that wasn’t saved. Ack…

  • Steve Stevenson

    I still don’t understand why they cannot make a digital back for older SLRs.
    Make it a 12mp full frame black and white sensor.
    Charge $1000 for it, and the hipster, art students, would eat it up.
    As would I.

  • 3ric15

    Dust issues maybe? Who knows….

  • derekdj

    That would be the ultimate in recycling. There’s so many great classic camera bodies and glass out there that could be brought into the digital age with a swappable digital back. That would be a great Kickstarter project for some skilled entrepreneurial engineer!

  • DamianM

    We would benefit from the larger array of lenses that dont work as well in digital cameras…. but its not good for business and that’s all the company’s want, to make money.

    Nothing more nothing less.

    Everytime you need to upgrade its good for the company.
    But still there are 50 year old cameras you can use today.
    unitl they phase out film, all for the purpose to make money.

  • Chris Mcfall

    I believe fuji Used to manufacture a Film canister shaped digital sensor insert It was supposed to cost about a grand. Can#t remember if it made it to market or not. Mind you it was prob only 4 MP…

  • Ken Elliott

    Leica did it. Google “Leica R digital back”. The problem is you have nearly all the expense of a full digital camera, a smaller market, and it simply doesn’t work as well. It would be very difficult to make a business case to spend the money on the development and tooling of such a product, rather than work on the next D5, D900, D400, etc.

    But if you want to make one, consider taking a mirrorless camera and use it for parts.

  • james

    That was a hoax.

  • derekdj

    That’s been floating around the internet for awhile. Unfortunately it’s “concept” a branding company came up with. It’s an interesting idea but engineers say it’s improbably to squeeze all the electronics and batter into a film cartridge size. But there’s no reason why a swappable back for different film cameras can’t be developed.

  • GC

    With the sensor and wifi capability now, a simple capture image and send to smart phone is possible. Use a film cartridge size electronics pack and extend the sensor out like film. No need to display or preview on the camera anymore. Can be a universal fit.