Eastman: The Inventor

George Eastman Museum

The Story of George Eastman, Pioneer of Popular Photography.

George Eastman, teenager (1880)
When George Eastman was only around 8 years old, his father died. George left school in his early teenage years to help support his family. He was inventive and used scrap material to make small toys or games to sell to earn some money. After a number of different jobs, he eventually became a teller at the Rochester Savings Bank. 
George Eastman, teller at the Rochester Savings Bank
In 1877, while working at the Rochester Savings Bank, George Eastman decided to travel to Santo Domingo with the aim of purchasing some property there as an investment. He needed to document the property in some way. He could bring along a reputable artist to draw the property he planned to buy, or he could learn photography and document it himself. He chose to take lessons from a local photographer and became so intrigued by the process that he canceled his trip and invested the money he had saved on more chemicals and photographic equipment.
Photography in the 20th century
From the announcement of photography’s invention in 1839 until the 1870s, making photographs was a complicated and messy process usually reserved for professionals. The photographer had to carry a very heavy camera, tripod, tent, and chemicals with them in the field, and the exposed plates needed to remain wet in order to be processed. Most photographers usually brought along an assistant to help with this cumbersome process. Eastman could see that there had to be an easier way, and he began to experiment at home after working at the bank during the day. Some people saw George Eastman’s experiments with photography—like his attempts to make images on his lunch hour from the bank—as a curious or foolish endeavor. Eastman’s efforts paid off, however. He invested in a loft in downtown Rochester, New York, where he would open his first factory, and eventually, he left his job at the bank.
George Eastman, photographer
Some people saw George Eastman’s experiments with photography—like his attempts to make images on his lunch hour from the bank—as a curious or foolish endeavor. Eastman’s efforts paid off, however. He invested in a loft in downtown Rochester, New York, where he would open his first factory, and eventually, he left his job at the bank.
Eastman Gelatine Dry Plates
George Eastman was among the first to demonstrate the great convenience of gelatin dry plates over the cumbersome wet plate process. Dry plates could be exposed and then brought back to the darkroom, eliminating the need to bring chemicals and processing equipment in the field. In 1880, Eastman began to commercially manufacture dry plates, founding the Eastman Dry Plate Company. With the emulsion-coating machine in his factory, George Eastman was able to standardize the plates, resulting in evenly coated, mass-produced plates made in a variety of sizes for professional photographers. 
Walker Roll Holder
While dry plates were more convenient and portable than wet plates, they were still cumbersome and messy. In 1883, the Eastman’s company introduced the Eastman Walker roll holder, which made it possible for photographers to replace glass plates with a flexible film. The roll holder was designed to fit in cameras that the photographers already had, making the switch to flexible film even easier.
The Eastman Kodak Company
The façade of Eastman’s company buildings advertised the latest products. This building dates from around 1891, when the Eastman Company was selling the Kodak camera and other photographic materials. Eastman was adept at marketing and advertising, and even from early on, he had the company’s logo and products painted on every truck and train used for distribution, as well as on his office and manufacturing buildings.
The Kodak Camera
The Kodak camera was introduced to the world in 1888. It is considered the first easy-to-use, automatic camera. The camera was operated with three steps: Holding the camera steady, the photographer would (1) pull up the string to open the shutter, (2) press the button on the side to make the exposure, and (3) turn the key on the top three times. The key advanced the exposed film so the camera was ready to use again. The Kodak camera sold for $25 (which is equivalent to around $625 in 2017) and came loaded with enough film to make 100 snapshots. When all 100 pictures had been exposed, the camera was sent to the Eastman Company, where they removed the film, processed the pictures, and then mailed the snapshots back along with the camera with another roll of film inside.
The Kodak
This advertisement for the first Kodak camera shows its operation step by step, including processing.When all 100 pictures had been exposed, the camera was sent to the Eastman Company, where theyremoved the film, processed the pictures, and then mailed the snapshots back along with the camerawith another roll of film inside. This was the birth of the global photofinishing industry, which madeGeorge Eastman a millionaire.
Advertisement for The Kodak Camera
Most early Kodak advertisements were drawings showing the ease of using the handheld camera. “You press the button, we do the rest” was a company slogan for many years. This small, easy-to-operate camera allowed amateurs to begin to take photographs and document their lives. When all 100 pictures had been exposed, the camera was sent to the Eastman Company, where they removed the film, processed the pictures, and then mailed the snapshots back along with the camera with another roll of film inside. This was the birth of the global photofinishing industry, which made George Eastman a millionaire. The camera became so successful that in 1892, George Eastman changed his company’s name to Eastman Kodak Company. 
Inside the Eastman Kodak Company
This interior view of the Kodak factory shows many women at work in this mass production enterprise. In building his successful, innovative business, George Eastman recognized the importance of hiring good workers and offering them good benefits. He searched for the best engineers and chemists—men and women—from the best universities, and the company offered its employees stock options, on-site healthcare, and flexible schedules, among many other resources.
The Brownie Camera
In 1900, Eastman introduced the Brownie camera. It could be made inexpensively for 50 cents and sold for $1 (equivalent to around $25 in 2017). Its affordability made it very popular and made photography accessible to more people than ever before. Eastman’s company could not manufacture them fast enough for the growing market. 
The Brownie Goes Abroad
As he expanded his company around the world, Eastman invested in global marketing and advertising. It was common for the same advertisement to be translated into multiple languages for use in many different countries. This French ad is directed at children, showing how easy it is use the Brownie camera. 
The Kodak Girl
In the 1890s, Kodak advertisements began featuring a fashionably dressed woman (the blue-and-white striped dress her signature) with a Kodak camera in hand. This figure would become known as the Kodak Girl, and she embodied Progressive Era independence and leisure. These ads were specifically targeted at women and promoted the idea of picture making as a fashionable new hobby and a part of everyday life.
Research Laboratories at the Eastman Kodak Company
In 1912, George Eastman established the Research Laboratories at Kodak Park in Rochester, New York. It was crucial that new inventions and improvements in the photographic industry happen at his company. Around this time, the company introduced portrait sheet film for professional photographers. Some of the company’s innovations in optics and chemicals were used during World War I in warplanes, aerial cameras, and other military equipment. Eastman brought the best chemists and engineers from all over the world to manage and work in this important division of his company.  
Eastman and Edison
Eastman’s company had long experimented with making color film. In July 1928, George Eastman and Thomas Edison introduced their color motion picture film to the world. The film was called Kodacolor, and it was debuted to the press and distinguished guests at Eastman’s estate in Rochester, New York. The special black-and-white film was shot on a camera fitted with a filtered lens, and once developed, the print was projected with a similar filter and the image appeared in natural color on the screen.  
Kodak's 50th Anniversary
In 1930, George Eastman gave a free camera to any child that turned 12 in that year. Commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of his company’s founding in Rochester, New York, the campaign gave away more than 500,000 cameras in the United States and a large number in Canada as well. By putting a camera in the hands of a young person looking for a hobby, Eastman helped to foster a generation of photo enthusiasts and lifelong customers. 
Visit the George Eastman Museum
Want to learn more about George Eastman's legacy? Visit us at the George Eastman Museum. 
Credits: Story

George Eastman Museum

Kathy Connor, Curator of the George Eastman Legacy Collection

Jesse Peers, Legacy Collection Archivist

Kate Meyers Emery, Manager of Digital Engagement

Molly Tarbell, Editor & Associate Publications Manager

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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