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by Louise Fiske

George Eastman 1857

The youngest of three children, George Eastman was born to Maria Kilbourn and George Washington Eastman on July 12, 1854 in the village of Waterville, New York

He was a high school dropout, judged “Not especially gifted” when measured against the academic standards of the day. He was poor, but even as a young man, he took it upon himself to support his widowed mother and two sisters, one of whom had polio. He began his business career as a 14-year old office boy in an insurance company and followed that with work as a clerk in a local bank.

He was George Eastman, and his ability to overcome financial adversity, his gift for organization and management, and his lively and inventive mind made him a successful entrepreneur by his mid-twenties and enabled him to direct his Eastman Kodak Company to the forefront of American industry.

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George Eastman

But building a multinational corporation and emerging as one of the nation’s most important industrialists required dedication and sacrifice. It did not come easily. When Eastman was 24, he made plans for a vacation to Santo Domingo. When a co-worker suggested he make a record of the trip, Eastman bought a photographic outfit with all the paraphernalia of the wet plate days.

The camera was as big as a microwave oven and needed a heavy tripod. And he carried a tent so that he could spread photographic emulsion on glass plates before exposing them and develop the exposed plates before they dried out. There were chemicals, glass tanks, a heavy plate holder, and a jug of water. The complete outfit “was a pack-horse load,” as he described it. Learning how to use it to take pictures cost $5.

Eastman did not make the Santo Domingo trip. But he did become completely absorbed in photography and sought to simplify the complicated process.

He read in British magazines that photographers were making their own gelatin emulsions. Plates coated with this emulsion remained sensitive after they were dry and could be exposed at leisure. Using a formula taken from one of these British journals, Eastman began making gelatin emulsions.

In 1881, with the financial backing of Rochester businessman Henry Strong, Eastman formed the Eastman Dry Plate Company (reincorporated as the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company in 1884 and as Eastman Kodak Company in 1892). With a series of innovations, the company created easy-to-use cameras that made photography widely accessible, established the practice of professional photofinishing, and developed a flexible film that was a critical contribution to the launch of the motion picture industry.

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 In 1880, he opened the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company. His first camera, the Kodak, was sold in 1888 and consisted of a box camera with 100 exposures.

Eastman also came up with the name Kodak, because he believed products should have their own identity, free from association with anything else.  There are several stories as to the history of this choice.  One suggests that the name was inspired while playing anagrams with his mother  another one suggested that he was simply partial to the letter ‘K’.  With the title in place his first Kodak Camera made its debut in 1888.

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The company slogan was “You press the button, we do the rest,” which meant the camera was sent into the company after the 100 exposures on the roll of film had been used; they developed it and sent it back to the customer. In 1889, Eastman hired chemist Henry Reichenbach to develop a type of flexible film that could be more easily inserted into cameras. Thomas Edison adapted the film for use in the motion-picture camera he was developing, further propelling the success of Eastman’s company.

Kodak girls with camera

George Eastman invented a camera simple enough for anyone to operate. He then set out to market it to those he thought most likely to use it–women. In 1893, he introduced the Kodak Girl, a fashionable, young, vibrant and independent woman  who often appeared in ads in a distinctive blue and white striped dress. Until the mid-1920’s the Kodak Girl roamed the world freely taking pictures as she went.

Take a Kodak With You

The iconic Kodak girl, in her blue & white striped dress became synonymous with Kodak products.

In 1884, Eastman patented the first film in roll form to prove practicable; he had been tinkering at home to develop it. In 1888, he perfected the Kodak Black camera, which was the first camera designed to use roll film. In 1889 he first offered film stock, and by 1896 became the leading supplier of film stock internationally. As film stock became standardized, Eastman continued to lead in innovations. Refinements in colored film stock continued after his death.

The Brownie camera was launched in 1900 to target new hobbyist photographers — children — and with its $1 price tag, it also became a favorite of servicemen. Eastman supported the military in other ways as well, developing unbreakable glass lenses for gas masks and a special camera for taking pictures from planes during World War I. 

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U.S. patent no. 388,850, issued to George Eastman, September 4, 1888

Although his company was essentially a monopoly for many years, Eastman was not the average corporate industrialist. He was one of the first American industrialists to embrace and implement the concept of employee profit sharing in the United States, and, in addition, he made an outright gift from his own money to each of his workers. In 1919, he added what is known now as stock options.

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George Eastman on board SS Gallia, February 1890

His generosity extended beyond his own business, as he gave to the struggling Mechanics Institute of Rochester, which became the Rochester Institute of Technology, as well as M.I.T. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). His high regard for education in general led him to contribute to University of Rochester, and the Hampton and Tuskegee institutes. “The progress of the world depends almost entirely upon education,” he said.Dental clinics both in Rochester and in Europe were also a focus of his concern. “It is a medical fact,” he said, “that children can have a better chance in life with better looks, better health and more vigor if the teeth, nose, throat and mouth are taken proper care of at the crucial time of childhood.”

In all, it is estimated that Eastman contributed more than $100 million of his wealth for philanthropic purposes during his lifetime.

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George Eastman Circa 1930

An avid cyclist, Eastman noticed a progressive immobility, the result of a degenerative condition that involved a hardening of the cells in the lower spinal cord. He also suffered from severe diabetes. So, on March 14, 1932, at age 77, he took his own life with a single gunshot to the heart. A note he left said, “My work is done. Why wait?”

He never married or had a family, citing being too busy and too poor when he was younger. He was an enthusiastic art collector on his long trips to Europe, and a music lover, establishing the prestigious Eastman School of Music in 1921 in Rochester, New York.

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George Eastman (left) and Thomas Edison with motion picture camera at Eastman’s house in Rochester, New York, where a demonstration of the new Kodacolor film was being held] July 1928

In the late 1920s, Eastman was diagnosed with a progressive and irreversible spinal disease, and on March 14, 1932, he ended his own life. In a note to friends, he wrote, “My work is done. Why wait?”

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George Eastman 1920’s

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During his life, George Eastman donated more than $100 million to educational and arts institutions, public parks, hospitals, dental clinics, and charitable organizations around the world. To ensure the success of his company in Rochester after his death, Eastman left in his will money that would encourage education, appreciation of the arts, and expansion of medical services in the Rochester community.

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A 3-cent stamp commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of George Eastman (1854-1932) was issued in Rochester, New York, on July 12, 1954.

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