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"He knows nothing about photography, which is all the better."

Let's get our facts straight:

George Eastman did not invent the camera.

He did not invent photography, he did not create Polaroids or motion pictures or the flash or even the cellulose film we use to capture our most precious moments. But what he did do was just as important: he took photography out of the hands of the professionals, and literally put it in the hands of the world.

"The bulk of the paraphernalia worried me..."

Eastman was born on July 12, 1854, in Waterville, New York, to Maria and George Eastman. His father was a successful businessman, operator of an upstate nursery and a bookkeeping school in Rochester, and a direct descendant of Roger Eastman, who in 1638 became one of the earliest American settlers aboard the ship Confidence. However, his father unexpectedly passed away when George was only 7, and his mother had little savings. They began taking on boarders, and George soon dropped out of high school and took on a job as an errand boy at a local bank.

By 1875, Eastman had become junior bookkeeper at Rochester Savings Bank and had accumulated a meager amount of wealth. He kept meticulous ledgers of his accounts and credits his entire life. He was, in the words of many colleagues, a stickler about the bottom line.

In 1877, Eastman branched out and invested in some real estate. To make more careful investments, Eastman bought a professional photographer's kit: camera, tripod, glass plates, a nitrate bath, a plate holder, and a dark-tent. "The bulk of the paraphernalia worried me...," said Eastman, who had to pay a photographer for lessons on how to use the equipment.

When Eastman bought his camera, American photographers primarily used "wet plates" to take pictures. They would dip their glass plates in chemicals (a rather messy endeavor) until an emulsion formed on which light could be transferred. Eastman thought this was a terribly inefficient way to go about things, and when he read about a new British process with pre-dipped plates (called "dry plates"), he had an intriguing business idea.

"What a foolish thing to do, to pursue this will-of-a-wisp..."

Eastman began producing dry plates, and by 1880, had hired 6 employees and was sending out over 4,000 plates every year. He found a distributor in E & H.T. Anthony, and he spent hours every night trying new emulsion formulas for his dry plates.

After nepotism denied him a promotion at the bank, he quit in outrage, vowing to the bankers, "I will succeed!" To which one of the bankers, writing Eastman and imploring him to return, wrote:

What a foolish thing to do, to pursue this will-of-a-wisp,
when you have such a promising career as a banker.

As Eastman's dry plate technology expanded, so did competition. By 1885, Eastman was ready to take his business in a new direction. He invented a roll holder and a paper form of his dry plates. It won several technical awards, but in general did not sell well.

"...as convenient as the pencil."

Eastman was now at a crossroads: professional photographers thought his roll holder was cumbersome, and his paper film of low quality, and they were all very much invested in the glass dry plates of the 1870s. His only profits came from developing the film sent back to him via his paper film. How would he make his money? An idea struck.

He hired Bausch and Lomb (the actual two guys!) to build him a small optical lens, a local cabinetmaker to produce the body, and a machinist to create the 1/8 second shutter. By 1888, Eastman unleashed his camera, which he had named the Kodak.

I have always admired the letter K's ability to strike a certain tone in one's ear, that tone of power and strength and resonance.
George Eastman

People were flabbergasted. Shipped with enough film for 100 pictures, people could take their Kodaks anywhere: baseball games, beaches, picnics, amusement parks, and all over the world. Over 13,000 Kodaks were sold the first 2 years, and 60,000 in the 2 after that. Priced at $25, the camera was rather expensive, but it was a smash sensation across America, causing one newspaperman to declare it "as convenient as a pencil."

One of the most important contributions the Kodak had on modern photography was its technical simplicity - its motto, "You push the button, we do the rest," spoke bounds on this. Once you had used up all of your film, you simply sent the entire camera back to Eastman's Rochester factory (postage paid), and they would develop and return your film, along with your camera, fully reloaded. This simple process quickly made converts of people everywhere.

"A nervous, ragged wreck."

In 1885, a New Jersey reverend by the name of Hannibal Goodwin had been experimenting with celluloid film. He successfully petitioned for a patent on his emulsion formula, but in 1887 Henry Reichenbach, Eastman's hand-picked chemist extraordinaire, independently discovered a formula to make the transparent film work in the Kodak. He filed for a patent, and although Goodwin sued, the Kodak was a large success. However, this would be the last of Eastman's successes for awhile.

Eastman was an extremely methodical man, requiring his pencils to be sharpened a certain way and his floors swept in a distinct pattern. He fumed when demand did not meet supply, and frequently exhibited his "blue streak," swearing at anyone within listening distance. He was not the nicest boss.

In 1891, Reichenbach quit and formed his own company, fed up with his boss's constant tantrums. The economic panic of 1893 put Eastman's state of affairs in a worse condition. One friend noted the intensely private Eastman was "a nervous, ragged wreck." Replacement chemists simply did not have Reichenbach's skill. Was Kodak doomed to the footnotes of history?

"...everything is in good shape."

In 1894, Eastman hired William Stuber, award-winning photographer, to come up with a new emulsion formula. Stuber worked in secret for almost a year on his project, emerging with the best celluloid film to date. Its remarkable clarity could not have come at a better time: the motion picture industry was starting to buzz with life.

By 1899, Kodak was worth over $50 million, and Eastman himself was a millionaire several times over. He continued to improve Kodak's stance in the market, releasing the Brownie, a camera for children that only cost one dollar, and helping in the development of mobile cameras for movies.

Eastman also became something of a philanthropist, donating $20 million to MIT, and $10 million more to the University of Rochester to form the Eastman School of Medicine and Dentistry. He also helped open hundreds of free children's dental clinics throughout the nation.

Business was booming, and "unless certain disaster strikes," Eastman wrote his mother, "everything is in good shape."

"Well, that's over."

Hannibal Goodwin had been diligent. He knew his patent had preceded Eastman, and he continued his battle in court. Finally, in 1902, a judge ruled in favor of Goodwin. Eastman quickly settled out of court to the tune of $5 million. "Well, that's over," was all Eastman said after the agreement was reached.

Now that his affairs had all been settled, Eastman began traveling abroad, going on safaris in Africa (where he personally oversaw the menu and the supply trunks) and all across the mountains of the western United States. In 1925, Eastman retired as president of Kodak, allowing Stuber to take over.

"Why wait?"

George Eastman, 77, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on March 14, 1932. At the time he was the 6th wealthiest man in the United States. He had donated over $100 million to charity, and his company continued to grow each year, developing faster, more reliable, and better ways to take pictures. Without Eastman's marketing and dogged tenacity, the ease of photography might never have come to pass. And although Eastman's suicide note read, "To my friends: my work is done. Why wait?" there is much to be said about his work. He gave all of us the ability and opportunity to capture our memories and our dreams in the most vivid and lasting way possible.

One often unstated fact about Eastman is that he was homosexual. In the late 19th century, this was a major taboo and thus Eastman never went public with his orientation. However, his private correspondences and general accounts of Eastman confirm that he was not really an eligible bachelor after all. Thanks to arthropod, whose suggestion led to further research.


  • George Eastman Museum - http://www.eastman.org/
  • The PBS documentary The American Experience: The Wizard Of Photography - details can be found at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/eastman/index.html
  • http://www.umich.edu/~urecord/9495/Oct10_94/8.htm

Further Reading

  • Brayer, Elizabeth. George Eastman: A Biography. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.
  • The Emergence of Cinema: the American Screen to 1907. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1990.
  • Gernsheim, Helmut and Alison. "The History of Photography from the Camera Obscura to the Beginning of the Modern Era." New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969.
  • James, T. H., ed. The Theory of the Photographic Process. 4th ed. New York: Macmillan Pub. Co., 1977.
  • Jenkins, Reese. "Images and Enterprise: Technology and the American Photographic Industry 1839 to 1925." Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975.
  • "Journey: 75 Years of Kodak Research." Rochester: Eastman Kodak Co., 1969.
  • Newhall, Beaumont. The History of Photography. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1964.

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