George Eastman

By mass-producing his inventions, the American inventor and industrialist George Eastman (1854-1932) promoted photography as a popular hobby. He was also a benefactor of educational institutions.

George Eastman was born in Waterville, N.Y., on July 12, 1854, and educated in Rochester public schools. He advanced from messenger to bookkeeper in the Rochester Savings Bank by 1877. Frugal with money—his only extravagance amateur photography—he spent his savings on cameras and supplies and went to Mackinac Island. When photographic chemicals ruined his packed clothes, he became disgusted with the wet-plate process.

In the 1870s American photography was still slow, difficult, and expensive. Equipment included a huge camera, strong tripod, large plateholder, dark tent, chemicals, water container, and heavy glass plates. Eastman experimented with dry-plate techniques. He was the first American to contribute to photographic technology by coating glass plates with gelatin and silver bromide. In 1879 his coating machine was patented in England, in 1880 in America. He sold his English patent and opened a shop to manufacture photographic plates in Rochester. To eliminate glass plates, Eastman coated paper with gelatin and photographic emulsion. The developed film was stripped from the paper to make a negative. This film was rolled on spools. Eastman and William Walker devised a lightweight roll holder to fit any camera.

Amateurs could develop pictures after Eastman substituted transparent film for the paper in 1884. Flexible film was created by Hannibal Goodwin of New York and a young Eastman chemist, Henry Reichenback. The long patent dispute between Goodwin and Eastman was the most important legal controversy in photographic history. A Federal court decision on Aug. 14, 1913, favored Goodwin. Goodwin's heirs and Ansco Company, owners of his patent, received $5,000,000 from Eastman in 1914.

In 1888 Eastman designed a simple camera, the Kodak (Eastman's coined word, without meaning), which was easy to carry and eliminated focusing and lighting. With a 100-exposure roll of celluloid film, it sold for $25.00. After taking the pictures and sending the camera and $10 to the Rochester factory, the photographer received his prints and reloaded camera. Eastman's slogan, "You press the button, we do the rest," was well known.

Anticipating photography's increased popularity, in 1892 Eastman incorporated the Eastman Kodak Company. This was one of the first American firms to mass-produce standardized products and to maintain a chemical laboratory. By 1900 his factories at Rochester and at Harrow, England, employed over 3,000 people and by 1920 more than 15,000. Eastman, at first treasurer and general manager, later became president and finally board chairman.

Daylight-loading film and cameras eliminated returning them to the factory. To Eastman's old slogan was added "or you can do it yourself." A pocket Kodak was marketed in 1897, a folding Kodak in 1898, noncurling film in 1903, and color film in 1928. Eastman film was indispensable to Thomas Edison's motion pictures; Edison's incandescent bulb was used by Eastman and by photographers specializing in "portraits taken by electric light."

Eastman's staff worked on abstract problems of molecular structure and relativity, as well as on photographic improvements. During World War I his laboratory helped make America's chemical industry independent of Germany, and finally the world leader.

Concerned with employee welfare, Eastman was the first American businessman to grant workers dividends and profit sharing. He systematically gave away his huge fortune to the University of Rochester (especially the medical school and Eastman School of Music), Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Hampton Institute, Tuskegee Institute, Rochester Dental Dispensary, and European dental clinics.

After a long illness the lonely, retiring bachelor committed suicide on March 14, 1932, in Rochester. He had written to friends, "My work is done. Why wait?"


Further Reading on George Eastman

The best biography of Eastman is Carl W. Ackerman, George Eastman (1930). Robert Taft, Photography and the American Scene: A Social History, 1839-1889 (1938), places Eastman in perspective in the evolution of photography. Mitchell Wilson, American Science and Invention: A Pictorial History (1954), is also helpful.