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Retro Apple: The QuickTake 100 digital camera

In 1994, I was working as the IT manager for a natural gas pipeline company (all Macs, of course), had long hair pulled back in a ponytail, and none of that hair was gray. In January of '94, I remember being invited down to Apple's Denver office -- they had a Denver office in those days -- to see some new products that were being introduced.

While I was disappointed that they didn't show us an updated Newton (the MessagePad 110 would be introduced in March), I was intrigued by another device that was demonstrated -- the Apple QuickTake 100 digital camera. At the time, the only other small business / consumer digital cameras on the market were the Canon Ion, a device from Kodak (rebranded by Apple as the QuickTake 100), and the Logitech PhotoMan.

After the demo, we passed around the camera and took photos of each other, and then waited as the pictures were uploaded to a Mac. Considering that "digital photography" for us at that time meant taking a picture with a film camera, waiting for the film to be developed and prints made, and then scanning the pictures on an expensive and slow SCSI scanner, this seemed like the future. Of course, I remember comments from many of the people in attendance to the effect of "digital photography will never replace film photography."
At WWDC 1994 in San Jose, there was a booth at one of the many evening parties where you could have your picture taken with a QuickTake 100, uploaded to a Mac, placed into a fake Macworld magazine cover, and then printed out on a color printer. While that type of action would take literally seconds with modern technology, it took the Apple employees who manned the booth close to 10 minutes per picture! The line to get on the cover of Macworld was long and slow as a result.

So what started this trip down Memory Lane? A few days ago when I opened up the mailbox, there was a box sitting inside of it. The box was from my nephew in Seattle, and it contained some goodies that he decided not to take with him when he starts graduate school at M.I.T. this fall.

Nestled in packing paper along with a full set of Apple IIc system disks was an Apple QuickTake 100 in good condition. I knew that my nephew had mentioned finding the QuickTake in a surplus pile somewhere, but I never expected to end up in my hands. He knows that I have a penchant for collecting old tech, so he must have decided that the QuickTake would find a good home with me.

The first thing that struck me is how large the QuickTake 100 actually is (see comparison with iPhone below). It looks like a set of binoculars and it is held in both hands that way. Since it weighs one pound, that may be what the designers at Kodak thought would be the best way to hold up a heavy camera. On the back of the camera is an optical viewfinder that you peer into, along with a postage stamp-sized monochrome LCD that displays the current number of pictures stored in the camera.
So, what's the capacity and resolution of the QuickTake 100? It has a whopping 1MB of flash memory and has two resolutions -- 640 x 480 (or .3 MP) and 320 x 240 (.075 MP). You could take a grand total of 8 photos at high resolution, or 32 at the low resolution setting. Compare this to the resolution of the iPhone 3GS camera, which is 2048 x 1536 (3.072 MP), or many modern digital SLRs around the original price of the QuickTake 100 (US$749.00) which boast zoom lenses and 15 MP resolution.

The QuickTake 100 had a fixed 8 mm lens and a shutter speed range of 1/30 - 1/175 of a second. The QuickTake 150, which was essentially the same camera, added a separate close-up lens that allowed focusing as close as 30 cm (about a foot). Due to the rather slow shutter speeds, the QuickTake had a built-in flash.
Being the geek that I am, my next step after unboxing the QuickTake 100 was to see if it actually worked. Popping a set of 3 fresh AA batteries into the camera did nothing; poking at the various buttons (none of which are marked, by the way) produced no beeps, nothing on the display, and definitely no flash. It was time to visit the Apple website to see if I could find a manual for the camera, which by some miracle did exist. The manual told me what I had forgotten -- to turn the camera on, you have to slide the lens cover to the right. D'oh!

Success! Through the icons on the display, I was able to figure out that the top right button toggled the camera resolution, that the top left button toggled the flash, that the bottom right button started up a 10-second timer, and that the bottom left recessed button erased the camera. Next to the resolution icon was a number (in this case, 0) and in the middle of the display was a larger number (8). I had to resort to reading the manual to figure out that the number 8 was the number of photos stored in the camera, and that the zero was how many pictures I had left.
Taking no heed to the fact that historically important photos might have been stored in the flash RAM, I deleted the photos to see if I could take new pictures of important things like my cat and messy desk. Sure enough, the camera worked perfectly, counting up the number of "high-resolution" photos I had taken and attracting the attention of the cat, who decided that it tasted pretty good and kept licking it.

The next task was trying to figure out how to look at the photos in the QuickTake. Remember, the QuickTake doesn't have an external color LCD display, nor does it have any way of emailing photos to an address. A quick Google search indicated that I was going to be out of luck. The QuickTake 100 has a simple RS-232 connector, and needs to connect to a serial port on the other end. That leaves both of my Macs out of the picture (no pun intended). A serial to USB adapter wouldn't work, and the QuickTake software (available here) doesn't run under Mac OS X.

To get these photos off of the camera, I'll need a Mac that has the proper port and that is running Mac OS 7.5 through 9. I might just try my luck on an old PowerBook on eBay. In the meantime, here's a link to some photos taken with a QuickTake that show you how the photos look. These pictures were taken by Franny Wentzel and posted at citynoise.org, and as Franny mentions, the photos have a wonderful watercolor look to them.

I'm not willing to spend more than $25 to get an old Mac that will work with the QuickTake, so I may never have a chance to actually use the camera. I'll keep this device as a historical piece, since it does represent one of the first consumer digital cameras to hit the market. The QuickTake series never was a best seller for Apple, and the last model was dropped by Steve Jobs in 1997 as part of the streamlining of Apple that he instituted.

It's fascinating to see what an impact Apple has had in the digital photography world through iPhoto, Aperture, and even PhotoBooth, and also through the trend of building digital cameras into its products. Between the omnipresent iSight cameras built into most Macs, the iPhone cameras, and rumors of new iPods with cameras built in, most Apple hardware either has or will have a way of capturing photos. All of this started with the clunky, overpriced digital camera called the QuickTake 100.