✪ George Eastman was an American entrepreneur who founded the Eastman Kodak Company and helped to popularize the mainstream use of photographic roll film. After a decade of experiments in photography, he patented and marketed the first roll film camera, making amateur photography accessible to the general public for the first time. Working later as the treasurer and president of Kodak, he oversaw a tremendous business expansion of the company and the film industry.
Eastman was also a major philanthropist; establishing the Eastman School of Music, Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and several schools of dentistry and medicine at the University of Rochester, the Eastman Dental Hospital at University College London.He also made large personal contributions to the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) and financed the construction of several buildings at the second campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on the Charles River, Tuskegee University and Hampton University, two historically black universities in the South. With interests in improving public health, he provided funds for medical & dental clinics in London and other European cities to serve low-income residents.
In his final two years, Eastman expreienced constant, intense pain caused by a disorder affecting his spine. On March 14, 1932, he committed suicide by shotting himself in the heart. He left a note which read, “To my friends: my work is done. Why wait?”
Eastman was born in Waterville, New York, as the youngest child of George Washington Eastman and Maria Eastman (née Kilbourn) on the 10-acre farm his parents bought in 1849. He had two older sisters, Ellen Maria and Katie. He was largely self-educated, although he attended a private school in Rochester after the age of eight.
In the early 1840s his father had started a business school, the Eastman Commercial College in Rochester, New York. The city became one of the first “boomtowns” in the United States, based on its rapid industrialization. However, when his father’s health started to deteriorate, the family gave up their farm and moved to Rochester in 1860. Eastman’s father died of a brain disorder on April 27, 1862. To survive and afford George’s schooling, his mother took in boarders in their family home.
George continued in school until he was 14 years old. Forced by family circumstances, he quit school to find employment. His first job was a messenger boy with an insurance firm, and paid $3 a week. A year later, he became an office boy for another insurance firm. Through his own initiative, he soon took charge of policy filing and even wrote customer policies. His pay increased to $5 per week.
However, because his income was not enough to meet family expenses, he studied accounting at home in the evenings to get a better paying job.
In 1874, after five years in the insurance business, he was hired as a junior clerk at the Rochester Savings Bank. His salary was tripled to more than $15 a week.
One of Eastman’s older sisters Katie, contracted polio when she was very young and died in late 1870 when George was only 15 years old. Later, as Eastman began to have success with his photography business, he vowed he would repay his mother for all the hardships she had endured while raising him.
Eastman became interested in photography while working as a bank clerk in the 1870s. At the age of 24, he made plans to take a vacation to Santo Domingo. When a co-worker suggested he should make a record of the trip, Eastman bought a photographic outfit complete with all the paraphernalia which was common in the era of photographic wet plates.
Eastman never took his trip to Santo Doming, but he did become completely absorbed in photography and began to experiment with different ways to simplify the then complicated process.
He had read in British magazines that photographers were making their own gelatin emulsions. Plates coated with this kind of 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 to make gelatin emulsions.
Eastman worked days at the bank and experimented with photographic emulsion formulas at home in his mother’s kitchen at night. His mother said that some nights Eastman was so tired he couldn’t even undress, but collapsed and slept on a blanket on the floor beside the kitchen stove.
After three years of photographic experiments, Eastman had finally refined a successful formula. By 1880, he had not only invented a dry plate formula, but also designed and patented a machine to prepare a large numbers of the plates. He quickly recognized the possibilities of making dry plates to sell to other photographers.
In 1881, he founded the Eastman Dry Plate Company with Henry Strong to sell plates, with Strong as company president and Eastman as treasurer, where he handled most executive functions.
“The idea gradually dawned on me,” he later said, “that what we were doing was not merely making dry plates, but that we were starting out to make photography an everyday affair.” Or as he described it more succinctly “to make the camera as convenient as the pencil.”
He later said:
“When we started out with our scheme of film photography, we expected that everybody who used glass plates would take up films. But we found that the number which did so was relatively small. In order to make a large business we would have to reach the general public.”
Eastman came up with the “Kodak” name himself. He explained: “I devised the name myself. The letter ‘K’ had been a favorite with me — it seems a strong, incisive sort of letter. It became a question of trying out a great number of combinations of letters that made words starting and ending with ‘K.’ The word ‘Kodak’ is the result.” Eastman also selected Kodak’s distinctive yellow trade dress, which is still widely known & recognized throughout the world.
Around the same time, Eastman began experiments to create a flexible film roll that would replace plates altogether. In 1885, he received a patent for a film roll and then focused his efforts on creating a camera to utilize those rolls. In 1888, he patented and released the Kodak camera.
The first consumer Kodak camera which popularized photography with the Public
The original Kodak camera was sold pre-loaded with enough roll film for 100 exposures. When all the exposures had been made, the photographer would mail the camera back to the Eastman Company in Rochester, along with $10. The company would process the film, make a print of each exposure, load another roll of film into the camera and send the camera and the prints back to the photographer.
Eastman built his business on four basic principles and saw all four concepts as being closely related:
- a focus on the customer
- mass production at low cost
- worldwide distribution
- extensive advertising
The separation of photo creation from the difficult process of film development was a novel and innovative idea at the time and made photography more accessible to amateurs than ever before. The Kodak camera was immediately popular with the public. By August of 1888, demand was so high Eastman’s company was struggling to meet orders. At the same time, he and his employees also had several other camera models in development. The rapidly-growing Eastman Dry Plate Company was reorganized as the Eastman Company In 1889; and then incorporated as Eastman Kodak in 1892.
Eastman recognized early that most of his revenue would come from the sales of additional rolls of film. Rather than prioritizing camera sales, the Eastman Company focused on film production. By providing quality and affordable film to every camera other manufacturer, Kodak succeeded in turning his competitors into de facto business partners. In 1889, he patented the processes for the first nitrocellulose film base along with chemist Henry Reichenbach.
A number of patent infringement lawsuits would preoccupy Eastman and his lawyers in subsequent years, including one from Reichenbach after he was fired in 1892. The largest lawsuit would come from the rival film producer Ansco. Inventor Hannibal Goodwin had filed a patent for nitrocellulose film prior to Eastman and Reichenbach’s in 1887, but it was not granted until 1898. Ansco purchased the patent in 1900 and sued Kodak for infringement. Kodak ultimately lost the suit, which lasted over a decade and was forced to pay Ansco $5 Million.
Eastman was very involved in Kodak’s advertising and marketing. He himself coined the slogan, “You press the button, we do the rest,” which became ubiquitously recognized by the general public.
As Kodak pursued a monopoly on film manufacturing through patents and acquisitions, the company experienced very rapid growth. By 1896, Kodak was the leading supplier of film stock internationally; and by 1915, the company was the largest employer in Rochester with over 8,000 employees and annual earnings of $15.7 Million. In 1934, shortly after Eastman’s death, Kodak employed 23,000.
One of the largest new markets for film became the emerging motion picture industry. When Thomas Edison and other film producers formed the Motion Picture Patents Company in 1908, Eastman negotiated for Kodak to be sole supplier of film to the motion picture industry. However, his monopolistic intentions attracted the attention of the Federal Government, which began an anti-trust investigation into Kodak in 1911 for exclusive contracts, acquisitions of competitors and price-fixing. This resulted in a lawsuit against Kodak in 1913 and a final judgement in 1921, ordering Kodak to stop fixing prices and sell many of its interests.
Kodak’s growth continued during the 20th century, fueled by new innovations in film and cameras, including the Brownie camera, which was marketed to children. Eastman also took an innovative interest in color photography beginning in 1904 and funded extensive experimentation in color film production for the next decade. The resulting product, created by John Capstaff, was a two-color process named Kodachrome. Later, in 1935, Kodak would release the more famous second generation of Kodachrome. It was the first consumer marketed integral tripack film. During World War I, Eastman established a photographic school in Rochester to train pilots for aerial reconnaissance.
In an era of growing trade union activities, Eastman sought to counter the union movement by anticipating his worker’s demands. To this end, he implemented a number of Kodak worker benefit programs in 1910, including a general welfare fund to provide workmen’s compensation. In 1912, he added a profit-sharing program for all employees.
Eastman felt that the prosperity of an organization was not necessarily due to inventions and patents, but more to workers’ goodwill and loyalty, which in turn were motivated by forms of direct profit sharing.
In 1919, Eastman gave one-third of his own holdings of Kodak company stock; then worth $10 million, to his employees. Still later came the fulfillment of what he felt was his responsibility to employees with the establishment of retirement annuity, life insurance and disability benefit plans.
Carl W. Ackerman, a biographer writing in 1932, said:
“Mr. Eastman was a giant in his day. The social philosophy, which he practiced in building his company, was not only far in advance of the thinking during his lifetime, but it will be years before it is generally recognized and accepted.”
George Eastman never married. He was close to his mother and to his sister Ellen Maria and her family. He had a long platonic relationship with Josephine Dickman, a trained singer and the wife of business associate George Dickman. He became especially close to Dickman after the death of his mother, Maria Eastman, in 1907. He was also an avid traveler, enjoyed music, social gatherings and had a passion for playing the piano.
The loss of his mother, Maria, was particularly crushing to George. Almost pathologically concerned with decorum, he found himself, for the first time, unable to control his emotions in the presence of his friends. “When my mother died I cried all day,” he said later. “I could not have stopped to save my life.”
Due to his mother’s reluctance to accept his gifts, Eastman could never do enough for his mother during her lifetime. He continued to honor her after her death. On September 4, 1922, he opened the Eastman Theatre in Rochester, which included a chamber-music hall, Kilbourn Theater, dedicated to his mother’s memory. At the Eastman House he maintained a rose bush, which was grown from a cutting from her childhood home.
In 1920, Eastman established the Eastman Savings and Loan to provide financial services for all Kodak employees. The institution was later rechartered as the ESL Federal Credit Union
In 1925 Eastman gave up his daily management of Kodak and officially retired as president of the company. He remained associated with the company in a business executive capacity, as the chairman of the board, until his death.
During his lifetime, Eastman donated more than $100 million to various organizations, becoming one of the major philanthropists in the United States during his lifetime. His largest donations went to the University of Rochester and to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to build their programs and facilities. Preferring to remain anonymous, he made donations under the alias “Mr Smith.” In 1918, he endowed the establishment of the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester, and in 1921 a school of medicine and dentistry there. In 1922, he founded the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, and hired its first musical director Albert Coates. Figured for its value in 1932 at the time of Eastman’s death, $100 million is equivalent to more than $2 billion in 2022.
Although he made generous donations to the Hampton Institute and Tuskegee Institute, becoming their largest donor in his era, he also upheld and reinforced the de facto segregation which existed in Rochester at that time. Kodak hired virtually no black employees during Eastman’s lifetime; and a 1939 commission of the New York State Legislature on living conditions of African-Americans found that Kodak had only a single black employee.
Eastman disdained public notoriety and sought to tightly control his image. He was reluctant to share information in interviews, and on multiple occasions both Eastman and Kodak blocked biographers from full access to his records. A definitive biography of his life was not finally published until 1996.
Eastman is the only person to have two stars in the Film Category on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. One on the north side of the 6800 block of Hollywood Boulevard and the other one on the west side of the 1700 block of Vine Street. Both recognize the same achievement; his development of bromide paper, which became a standard of the film industry.
In his final two years, Eastman suffered from intense pain caused by a disorder affecting his spine. He had difficulty standing and his walking eventually became a slow shuffle. Today, it might be diagnosed as a form of degenerative disease such as disc herniations from trauma or age causing either painful nerve root compressions, or perhaps a type of lumbar spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal caused by calcification in the vertebrae. Since his mother also suffered the final two years of her life in a wheelchair, she may have also had a similar spine condition but that is uncertain. Only her uterine cancer and successful surgery were documented in her health history.
Eastman also suffered from severe depression due to his pain, reduced ability to function and also since he had witnessed his mother’s suffering from pain. On March 14, 1932, he died by suicide with a single gunshot through the heart. His suicide note read, “To my friends, my work is done – Why wait? GE.”
Raymond Granger, an insurance salesman in Rochester, was visiting to collect insurance payments from several members of the staff. He arrived at the scene to find the workforce shocked and upset. At least one chronicler said that Eastman’s fear of senility or other debilitating diseases of old age was a contributing factor to his action.
Eastman’s funeral was held at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Rochester and his coffin was carried out to Charles Gounod’s “Marche Romaine.” He was buried in the grounds of the company he founded, at what is now known as Eastman Business Park.
Eastman built a mansion at 900 East Avenue in Rochester. Here he entertained friends to dinner and held private music concerts. The University of Rochester continued to use the mansion for various purposes for decades after his death. In 1949, it re-opened after having been adapted for use as the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film. It has since been designated a National Historic Landmark and is now known as the George Eastman Museum.
Eastman’s entire estate was bequeathed to the University of Rochester.✪