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George Eastman

inventor of a camera that anyone could use

George Eastman

George Eastman was born in Waterville, New York, on July 12, 1854, the youngest of three children born to George Washington and Maria Kilbourn Eastman. When he was five, the family moved to Rochester, New York, where his father established the Eastman Commercial College. The college later failed, however, and his family was thrown into financial straits, a situation made even worse by his father's death. At the age of 14, George had to drop out of school and get a job in order to help his mother financially.

Eastman began his business career as a messenger boy for an insurance company, earning $3 a week. After about a year, he became an office boy for another insurance firm, where, acting on his own initiative, he took charge of policy fixing and even wrote some policies; before long he was earning $5 a week. Needing to earn even more money, he studied accounting at home and night so he could get a better paying job, and, in 1874, he became a junior clerk at the Rochester Savings Bank, tripling his salary to over $15 a week.

Eastman's interest in photography began about 1878, when he bought a photographic outfit, including all of the wet plate paraphernalia, so he could make a photographic record of a trip to Santo Domingo he was planning to take. Learning how to use the equipment and develop his prints cost him $5, and Eastman became determined to simplify the process. (He never did go to Santo Domingo.) Reading every article on photography he could find, he came across one detailing a process for making gelatin emulsions. According to the article, photographic plates coated with these emulsions remained sensitive after they were dry, and could be exposed at leisure. Working in his mother's kitchen at night after putting in a full day's work at the insurance company, Eastman had invented his own emulsion by 1879, and he patented a machine for preparing large numbers of the plates that same year. In April of 1880, he leased the third floor of a building in Rochester and began manufacturing dry photographic plates for sale to professional photographers, and the seeds of what is now one of the world's most recognizable photographic companies were sown.

In January of 1881, Eastman and family friend Henry A. Strong formed the Eastman Dry Plate Company. By September of that year, the company was doing so well that Eastman was able to quit his bank job. The company moved into its own four-story building in 1883, and, in 1884, the partnership was dissolved in favor of a corporation called the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company, with 14 original shareholders. Eastman Negative Paper was introduced that same year, as was a roll holder for negative papers. Eastman American Film, the first transparent photographic film, was introduced in 1885.

As successful as Eastman was with his film and plates, his biggest goal was to make photography something anyone, professional or amateur, could easily master. That goal was achieved when he patented the Kodak Box Camera on September 4, 1888. The camera, which sold for $25, came pre-loaded with enough film for 100 exposures. Once all of the film had been exposed, the customer shipped the camera and film back to company headquarters in Rochester, where the film was developed, photographic prints were made, and the camera was reloaded with film. The name "Kodak," which Eastman made up out of thin air, was introduced at the same time as the camera. The Eastman Company replaced the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company in 1891, and that was in turn replaced by the Eastman Kodak Company of New York in 1892.

patent drawing of Eastman's camera

Eastman's box camera

Eastman was one of the first industrialists to employ full-time research scientists to make improvements to existing products and develop new ones, as well as one of the very few of his day to financially reward employees for those improvements and products. The commercial transparent roll film his scientists perfected in 1889 made it possible for Thomas Edison to develop the first motion picture camera in 1891. The first daylight-loading camera was introduced in 1891, and the Pocket Kodak Camera was introduced in 1895. In 1896, one year after discovery of x-rays, Eastman secured a contract for supplying plates and paper for the process. Photography became a hobby almost anyone could afford in 1900, with the introduction of the Kodak Brownie Camera, which sold for $1, plus 15 cents per roll of film. This was followed in 1902 by the Kodak Developing Machine, which made it possible for photographers to develop their own film.

Plagued by a progressive disability resulting from a hardening of his lower spinal cord, Eastman was facing the very real prospect of becoming an invalid when he committed suicide on March 14, 1932. Having never married, he bequeathed his estate to the University of Rochester, which established the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, the world’s oldest photography museum and one of the world’s oldest film archives, in 1949.


American Experience: The Wizard of Photography
George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film
Kodak Corporation

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This page was last updated on 08/31/2018.