A lot of headlines these days are devoted to the travails of U.S. companies that once dominated the markets they serve. Detroit automakers are probably the most visible example of firms that let success slip through their fingers, but there are numerous others. Xerox, for one, failed to exploit developments at its PARC think tank which fed the PC revolution. Later its management began a near-fatal fascination with the quality movement.

But the former giant I despair about most these days is Eastman Kodak. It was one of the pioneers in digital photography but still gets most of its revenues from film. A Kodak engineer built the first digitalcamera prototype in 1975. You would never know that, though, from the way digital photography developed in the 1980s. It was clear Japan was pursuing electronic photography and wanted to own it.

Engineers from Sony presented a paper at the 1982 IEEE Conference on Consumer Electronics on the early Mavica, basically an analog electronic camera recording single video frames as still images. And for the most part, 1980s-era papers presented on electronic imaging and cameras at that conference were Japanese.

I sat through some of those early presentations. It was rare for Japanese engineers to speak much English back then. The only English words most seemed to know were the ones written on the sheets of paper they were reading to the audience. You had to give these gentlemen “A” for effort, but it was tough to understand them.

The question-and-answer periods following these speeches were equally challenging. Usually one and sometimes two translators would join the author on the podium. A query from an audience member would bring a lengthy huddle at the front of the room and a brief response.

But the interesting aspect of these questions was who asked them. The most knowledgeable ones came from engineers at Kodak whose affiliation was easily discerned from their name badges. As far as I know, the film giant at the time had not made any noises about an interest in digital photography. Nevertheless, it was clear that buried in the bowels of the organization were engineers who knew a thing or two about how to design electronic cameras.

Kodak came out with its first digital camera, a $13,000 SLR model aimed at professionals, in 1991. The company credited with pioneering mass-market photography only began selling a digital model aimed at ordinary consumers in 2001. This though it has amassed over 1,000 digital imaging patents. Today nearly all digital cameras still use some of them.

In the last four years Kodak has eliminated almost 40,000 jobs and closed a number of its plants. Meanwhile, Canon dominates the market in sales of digital cameras and digital SLRs. Market studies I’ve seen put Kodak in third place behind Canon and Sony.

It didn’t have to turn out this way. Had Kodak pursued its early work in electronic imaging more intensely, today’s consumer camera market might have a quite different look. It is not inconceivable that Kodak could have almost single-handedly changed the face of consumer electronics and kept a bigger chunk of that industry within the U.S. But this would have taken vision and foresight, traits that seem to be lacking in many large U.S. corporations.

— Leland Teschler, Editor