The first photo shared with a cell phone in 1997

First photo shared with cell phone. Credit: Philippe Kahn

Taking photos and sending them with your cell phone is a very common practice nowadays, which you can do with any smartphone. This was not the case in the 90s of the last century, when sending a photo with a mobile phone required a lot of inventiveness, as well as medium-high technical knowledge. It demonstrates this very well story of the first photo sent with a mobile phonea successful undertakingJune 11, 1997 to the inventor Philippe Kahnwho created it by combining a Toshiba laptop with a Motorola cell phone it's a Casio camera.

The rudimentary (but decidedly functional) system created by Kahn allowed him to share online the photo of a subject particularly dear to the inventor of French origins: his newborn daughter Sophie. Be careful though: the photo in question was technically not taken with a mobile phone (the first phone equipped with a camera was launched on the market only a couple of years later, in 1999), but in fact it constitutes the first photo shared online from a mobile phone, hence the magazine TIME in 2016 he included it in his list of 100 photographs with the greatest impact in history.

The story of the first photo shared from a cell phone

For about a year Philippe Kahn had been working on a Web-based infrastructure that he dubbed “Picture Mail”, and which had a very specific purpose: to allow users to upload a photo and text and share them with a list of selected contacts. To make the system work properly, however, an important piece was still missing: the hardware that would make all this instant and simple.

In the absence of adequate hardware, Kahn called on his technical knowledge and intuition to set up his cell phone to take a photo of his soon-to-be-born daughter. While his wife was in labor (which luckily for the inventor lasted 18 hours), Kahn got to work. He had with him a Motorola StarTAC flip phoneone Casio Q10-A digital camera capable of taking 320 x 240 pixel photos (a ridiculous resolution by today's standards), and a Toshiba Satellite Pro 430CDT laptop. He was only missing a few components, which his assistant picked up from Radio Shack and subsequently took to the Sutter Maternity Center in Santa Cruz, where the inventor was with his wife.

Using these tools, Kahn assembled a prototype that connected the camera to his cell phone and computer, allowing him to upload images to a Web server at 1200 baud. The server then sent email alerts to a list of friends and family, who could click on the link they received and view the photo of the cute newborn.

The equipment used by Philippe Kahn to share the photo of his daughter Sophie online. Credit: Firstphonephoto

In relation to his undertaking, Kahn revealed to the site Snopes some background on the story:

That day (June 11, 1997, Ed.) we didn't just share “the first” photo on cellular networks; we pioneered a cloud-based solution for sharing media content on an unprecedented scale. That image instantly reached over 2,000 people, a feat made even more remarkable considering the limitations of public wireless networks at the time, which were limited to 1200 baud rates. This achievement wasn't about hardware: it wasn't about an in-phone camera as we know it today. The infrastructure we developed laid the foundation for what has evolved into today's social media platforms.

The beginning of a new era for photography and telephony

The photo to his Sophie represented the beginning of a new era for photography and telephony. Kahn was fully aware of this and that's why he started working hard on technology that would make it easier to share photos on the Internet.

In an interview given to IEEE Spectrum he said that after the baby was born he spent the next month integrating the project, using a microcontroller, a CMOS sensor and a phone. In early 1998, she founded Lightsurfing, a company based on this technology, while filing some patents describing his idea. He then showed the technology to manufacturers such as Kodak and Polaroid, who were working on wireless camera projects. According to Kahn «none of them could imagine that the future was digital photography inside the phone, with the Instant-Picture-Mail software and service infrastructure. They collectively came to the conclusion that phones would focus on voice – this was before texting – and that cameras would go wireless.”

Not achieving the desired success in the USA, Kahn moved on to promote his intuition to Japanese companies, finding good feedback with J-Phone, who involved Sharp to design their “Sha-Mail” phone and the product was a great success. Today, just over two decades later, taking photos and sharing them with others using our smartphone is a rather “banal” gesture but, thinking back to the whole history behind it, it certainly takes on greater meaning.