By Bill Dobbins
As a young man, George Eastman developed an interest in photography, which at that time involved using the wet plate process. This involved coating a glass plate with an emulsion, exposing and then developing it before it dried. This was cumbersome, technically difficult and time-consuming. Amazingly, despite these obstacles, wet plate photographers were able to create images everywhere from the Civil War to the Himalayas.
But Eastman was always on the lookout for new developments in photography and in a British photo journal learned that a new dry plate process had been invented. This allowed emulsions to be applied to plates that could be exposed and developed at some later time. Instead of having to expose and develop one plate at a time, a photographer could shoot a number of images without having to process the plates until later.
Eastman painstakingly learned to create dry plates and became so proficient at this that he started a company making dry plates for other photographers. He had been working in a bank and just pursuing photography and his dry plate process on the side. But his business became so successful he was able to quit his bank job and concentrate on manufacturing and selling dry plates.
Looking for an easier to use system of shooting and processing photos, Eastman created a way of coating rolls of paper with a photographic emulsion and a roll film holder that could be attached to a camera. Professional photographers loved the roll film idea but negatives created with a paper backing simply lacked the quality demanded by pros.
Eastman introduced the Kodak box camera in 1888, which used his roll film and film holder. Users would expose up to 100 images, send the camera and film to the Eastman company and would then get back prints of the negatives and the camera loaded with a new roll of film. This represented a true revolution. For the first time, customers without any technical knowledge of photography or chemistry could shoot pictures of friends, family, events and anything else in their daily lives.
The name Kodak was one Eastman made up, wanting something unique, memorable and easy to spell. Another new word that was introduced as a snapshot, which was appropriate because the Kodak camera had no viewfinder to aim it and no need to focus the lens.
Another term that became popular was photography fiends. This referred to those who developed a kind of obsession for shooting photos and took cameras everywhere. This created privacy concerns on the part of many – who were afraid, for example, photographs would be taken of women bathers emerging from the ocean with their wet swimming costumes clinging to their bodies.
There were 13,000 Kodak cameras sold the first year. But they cost $25 in 1888, which was three months wages for most. So these cameras were definitely not intended to be sold to the masses. But processing the film was so expensive the camera couldn’t be sold any cheaper. Stripping away the paper base of the film rolls was a difficult process.
But in1889, there was a technological breakthrough. Eastman patented a way of producing transparent film on celluloid. However, there were further technological obstacles to be deal with. A number of problems in perfecting the process lead to extensive customer plaints. Added to that, an economic slowdown in 1893 causes a severe financial problem for the company, leaded to the incurring of severe dept.
George Eastman persevere despite these setbacks and in 1894 introduced an emulsion so good even pro photographers began to use it. This also came in time to become the basis of a new industry: motion pictures. Kodak film was what early movie makers used to shoot and exhibit their films and Kodak remained a major supplier of movie film right up until the advent of the digital age. With the development of these new successful film and a general upturn in the economy, Eastman Kodak became a highly profitable and important company.
In 1898 Eastman went to England and created Eastman Ltd, giving him a worldwide monopoly on photographic process. Eastman himself collected $900,000 – a fortune at the time. He was then able to buy out other companies and acquired the technology to build a new and cheaper camera – The Brownie, in 1900, which sold for $1, which made photography available to almost everyone. Including children. Eastman believed introducing photography to children would mean they would continue to be interested as adults.
150,000 Brownies were sold in 1900, more than the total Eastman had sold in the previous 12 years of camera sales.
However, Eastman lost a patent dispute with another inventor of celluloid film, which ended up costing him $5 million, but this then made the way clear to develop to further develop and expand the business. Eastman soon became the 6th richest man in the US. He built a huge mansion which was run like a business, with total accounting of household, garden and everything else. He was a “control freak” before the term was invented.
In his 70s, Eastman became ill with what is believed to have been spinal stenosis. He gradually declined, was in great pain and at age 77 in 1932 he committed suicide by a self inflicted gunshot would to the heart.
The contribution of George Eastman to modern culture is incredibly important. He took a highly technical and complex process and made it available to almost everyone. His celluloid film made movie making possible. Eastman Kodak remained the dominant force in photography for more than 100 years.
In this digital age, where there are so many devices to shoot photo effortlessly and where billions of photos are being upload to the Internet, it takes an effort to remember how making photographs was once something limited to only a special few. But the person who was most influential in the democratization of photography and making it available to the masses was, without a doubt, George Eastman.
- U.S. Patent 226,503 “Method and Apparatus for Coating Plates”, filed September 1879, issued April 1880.
- U.S. Patent 306,470 “Photographic Film”, filed May 10, 1884, issued October 14, 1884.
- U.S. Patent 306,594 “Photographic Film”, filed March 7, 1884, issued October 14, 1884.
- U.S. Patent 317,049 (with William H. Walker) “Roll Holder for Photographic Films”, filed August 1884, issued May 1885.
- U.S. Patent 388,850 “Camera”, filed March, 1888, issued September, 1888.
- Eastman licensed, then purchased U.S. Patent 248,179 “Photographic Apparatus” (roll film holder), filed June 21, 1881, issued October 11, 1881 to David H. Houston.
Bill Dobbins is a veteran photographer and videographer located in Los Angeles who has exhibited his fine art images in two museums and a number of galleries and has published eight print and 16 eBooks, including two fine art photo books: