Believe It or Not, the Camera Phone Turned 20 Today

In today’s age of technology, we often take the cameras in our cell phones for granted. What you might not realize is that the ideas behind the camera phone has a high tech, but DIY, origin. Indeed, the creator of the first camera phone took the premiere photograph 20 years ago today, on June 11, 1997. The conglomeration of parts that made it all possible was a true Frankenstein’s monster of technology.

A picture of a smartphone taking a picture
This didn’t just spontaneously come into being

The Birth of Instant Picture Mail

Since early 1996, Philippe Kahn had been developing the server architecture for what he termed Instant-Picture-Mail. The server would accept a photo upload, and send web-based notifications to a select group of recipients. They could then request the photograph and view it for themselves. Philippe says on his blog post reminiscing about the innovation:

Remember it was 1996/97, the web was very young and nothing like this existed. The server architecture that I had designed and deployed is in general the blueprint for all social media today: Store once, broadcast notifications and let people link back on demand and comment. That’s how Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and many others are function.

So there’s the back story behind how the picture was transmitted, but how did it become digital in the first place?

The First “Camera Phone”

In 1997, the first successful, widely available, and reasonably-priced digital camera came to the market. That was the Casio QV. That camera could upload its pictures to a computer via a special cable. Philippe’s cell phone, a Motorola StartTac flip phone, could transmit data to the internet at 1200 baud. The problem was interfacing the phone with the laptop.

When Philippe’s wife, Sonia, went into early labor with their daughter Sophie, Philippe had roughly 18 hours to come up with a solution. He remembered that he had a speaker-phone kit for his cell phone, and cannibalized it. He came up with a means to connect the speaker-phone kit to the laptop. And with that, he gave birth to the first camera phone just in time for his wife to give birth to their daughter.

Sending the First Instant-Picture-Mail

With this Frankenstein’s Monster setup, Philippe was able to send the first Instant-Picture-Mail on June 11, 1997. He sent Sophie’s first picture to his friends and family. About 2,000 friends and family were able to see the image.

The first “Instant-Picture-Mail” picture shared with 2000 friends and family across the globe: June 11th 1997, Sophie’s birth picture
Mr. Kahn’s caption: The first “Instant-Picture-Mail” picture shared with 2000 friends and family across the globe: June 11th 1997, Sophie’s birth picture

There’s much more to the story, such as Philippe’s efforts to sell the idea of Instant-Picture-Mail to the likes of Kodak, Polaroid, and Motorola.

They hired consultants, market pundits and they all collectively came to the conclusion that phones would be focused on voice (this is before texting) and that cameras would become wireless. Both Kodak and Polaroid went bankrupt and so did Motorola.

The important thing to me is that the ideas of the camera phone were conceived in the sweetest, most delicate of times: the birth of a child. I’m actually surprised Philippe lived to tell the tale. I doubt most wives would be as accommodating as Sonia in such a painful, stressful time.

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