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George Eastman: Biography, Inventions & Photography

Instructor: Matthew Hill

Matthew Hill received Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies and Psychology from Columbia International University. Hill also received an M.A. and Ph.D. in History from Georgia State University. He has over 10 years of teaching experience as a professor and online instructor for courses like American History, Western Civilization, Religious History of the United States, and more.

George Eastman is synonymous with modern photography. He invented rolled film which made cameras smaller, less expensive, and accessible to amateurs. He also created motion picture film.

The Makings of a Camera

George Eastman's story is one of rags to riches. Eastman was born in 1854 in Waterville, New York. He was the youngest of three children. He moved to Rochester when he was five where his dad founded Eastman Commercial College. His father died unexpectedly a few years later, and Eastman had to quit school to work and help his mother financially. He spent the next five years working for an insurance company, but after studying accounting, he began working at the Rochester Savings Bank.

His focus suddenly shifted when his friend invited him to go with him on vacation to Santo Domingo. His friend suggested that he take along a camera to photograph the landscapes. This was easier said than done. Camera equipment at this time was a cumbersome collection of plate holders, a tripod, water containers, chemicals, and dark tents. It has been compared to a microwave sitting on a tripod. Eastman assembled what equipment he had, but it was weighty and bulky to pack. Eastman backed out of the trip, but this experience made him determined to design a simpler way to take pictures.

George Eastman
George Eastman

Dry Plate Technology

Eastman was determined to design a better camera, and he continued to tinker with this while still employed at the bank. He read in the British Journal of Photography of experiments with 'dry-plate' technology over the current 'wet plate' technology that exposed a photo onto a glass plate while wet. Eastman hired George Monroe and George Selden to assist him in developing this new technique. In 1880, he teamed with Henry Strong to found the Eastman Dry Plate Company out of Rochester New York to market dry plates.

Eastman and Rolled Film

However, his greatest innovation came next. Eastman next hired William Hall Walker, who, working with a new gelatin based paper film roll, created a device that pushed paper film through a camera roll. Eastman not only perfected dry-plate techniques but the addition of rolled film stored multiple pictures on a lightweight roll which undercut the need for heavy equipment. Officially, in 1888, the Kodak camera was born. Although many debated the origins of the name Kodak, Eastman stated that he chose it simply because the capital 'K' looked neat. In 1892, Kodak officially became the Eastman Kodak Company. Eastman's new rolled film design became the standard design in photography until digital photography came about, which subsequently was also an Eastman Kodak product.

A 1900 Advertisement for a Pocket Kodak Camera
Kodak Pocket Camera

The Eastman Camera

His invention became an instant success. The camera looked like a mini box whose film roll held 100 photos. The corporate slogan became the catchy 'you press the button, we do the rest.' After 100 photos had been taken, the entire camera was sent to the company, who developed the photos, inserted new film, and then shipped it back to the customer. Eastman constantly created new products. In 1900, the Brownie camera was introduced. It only cost one dollar, making it accessible to everyone including children. He also developed glass lenses for gas masks for the military that were unbreakable. He further developed camera models for use in airplanes. In 1928, he also developed color film.

George Eastman Photo
George Eastman Photo

Eastman and Edison

Eastman formed a friendship with Thomas Edison and they assisted each other with inventions. Edison, for example, had invented the Kinetoscope, which was an early single-person film device, but the film was poor quality. The two partnered to trim 40 mm film to 35 mm film that became the standard. Eastman improved on this when he hired chemist Henry Reichenbach to develop a nitrocellulose based film that became the standard in Edison's motion picture company. In turn, Edison's incandescent light bulbs created greater lighting scenarios for portrait-based photography.

George Eastman 1954 Commemorative Stamp
George Eastman 1954 Commemorative Stamp

Innovations and Advertising

Eastman was an aggressive advertiser. He advertised his new products in newspapers, periodicals, magazines, and billboards of his day. He was very hands-on and even wrote some of the advertisements himself. Eastman also introduced profit sharing among his employees based on company profits. This thinking was ahead of his time in his day, and it was rooted in the idea that companies should invest in its employees as much as its products.

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