How the first photo was captured and sent by phone

First ever camera phone photo of baby Sophie in the maternity ward, captured by her father Philippe Kahn. The grainy photo shows the baby asleep swaddled in blankets.
June 11th, 1997, Santa Cruz, CA: Image taken by Philippe Kahn after his daughter's birth.
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On June 11, 1997, the first ever photograph was captured and sent by a mobile phone.

 

The day was June 11 1997, engineer and entrepreneur Philippe Kahn was in a maternity ward at Sutter Maternity Center in Santa Cruz, California, awaiting the birth of his daughter.

While his wife was in labour, he decided that this would be a good time to send a photo of his newborn child through his flip phone. So, he hacked together a Motorola StarTAC flip phone, a Casio QV digital camera that took 320 by 240 pixel images, and a Toshiba 430CDT laptop computer. The whole system was set up so that when he took a photo with his camera, the system would automatically dial up his web server, upload the picture on to it and send email alerts to friends and family, who could then log in to download the image.

For almost a year Kahn had already been working on what he called Picture Mail, a web server-based infrastructure for photos. According to IEEE Spectrum, Kahn declared that “he was aiming to be the Polaroid of the 21st century, providing “Instant Picture Mail” that would be a digital update of Polaroid’s vision of the instant camera”.

However, he had not yet built the consumer hardware for this to work.

“I had always wanted to have this all working in time to share my daughter’s birth photo,” Kahn recalls to IEEE Spectrum, “but I wasn’t sure I was going to make it.”

Fortunately for him (but probably not his wife) his wife was in labour for 18 hours, which gave him some time to build his contraption. He had most of the stuff he needed and sent an assistant to get the rest from Radio Shack.

“It’s always the case that if it weren’t for the last minute, nothing would ever get done,” Kahn said.

And he did get it done! On June 11, 1997, the first ever photo was sent through a phone and the world changed. We have not looked back since then.

Composite image: Left, Philippe Kahn taking the first ever photo sent by a phone. Right image baby Sophie asleep , taken by Philippe Kahn after his daughter's birth.

June 11th, 1997, Santa Cruz, CA: Left, Philippe Kahn taking the photo. Right image taken by Philippe Kahn after his daughter’s birth.

 

Of course Philippe did not stop there.

Kahn has a master’s in mathematics and musicology composition, as well as classical flute performance. As a student, he had developed software for the MICRAL, which is credited by the Computer History Museum as the first ever microprocessor-based personal computer.

After the birth of his daughter, he founded the company LightSurf, and eventually received a handful of patents on the work.

“After the baby,” he says, “I spent the next month integrating the design, using a microcontroller, a CMOS sensor, and a phone.”

However, he was not able to sell his technology to the major camera companies: “to Kodak, Polaroid, and [other camera companies]; they all had wireless camera projects, but none of them could imagine that the future was digital photography inside the phone, with Instant-Picture-Mail software and service infrastructure. They collectively came to the conclusion that phones would be focused on voice—this was before texting—and that cameras would become wireless”, he recalled.

He then explored the market in Japan, finally striking lucky with Sharp, which used LightSurf to create its popular Sha-Mail (Picture-Mail) phone. Subsequently, the LightSurf technology created by Philippe Kahn highly influenced picture messaging and became the foundation of multimedia messaging.

In 2016, Time Magazine included Kahn’s first camera phone photo in their list of the 100 most influential photos of all time. And in 2017, Subconscious Films created a short film recreating the day that Philippe instantly shared the first camera-phone photo of the birth of his daughter Sophie. Here is the film. 

1997: Birth of the Camera Phone | Subconscious Films from Conscious Minds on Vimeo.

 

 

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I am a Chartered Environmentalist from the Royal Society for the Environment, UK and co-owner of DoLocal Digital Marketing Agency Ltd, with a Master of Environmental Management from Yale University, an MBA in Finance, and a Bachelor of Science in Physics and Mathematics. I am passionate about science, history and environment and love to create content on these topics.

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