People & Events
George Eastman was born on July 12, 1854, in Waterville, New York. His father, George Washington Eastman, ran a business school where he taught bookkeeping and penmanship, but had to work a second job selling fruit trees and roses, which forced him to split his time between Waterville and Rochester, New York. The young George Eastman was thus raised mostly by his mother, Maria (Kilbourn) Eastman, from an early age, and entirely by her after his father died in 1862. In 1870, his older sister Katie, who suffered from polio, died as well, leaving the Eastman household permanently scarred by misfortune.
At the age of 15, the family since having moved to Rochester, Eastman quit school and took a job as an office boy to help support his family. In 1875 he became a junior bookkeeper at the Rochester Savings Bank. By saving scrupulously, he was able to consider a career in real estate and in 1877 made plans to travel to Hispaniola, where a boom in land speculation was underway. Convinced by a friend that he could best document with the trip with a camera, he bought his first photographic equipment.
The excursion never took place, but Eastman was hooked on photography. He sought out the two amateur photographers in Rochester, George Monroe and George Selden, and became their willing pupil. A subscription to the "British Journal of Photography" inspired him to make improvements in dry-plate photography, then an inferior alternative to wet-plate photography (a process in which a glass plate was exposed and developed while wet). These experiments resulted in a formula for gelatin-based paper film and a machine for coating dry plates. He went into business selling dry plates in April 1880, in a room above a music store in the financial district of Rochester.
Eastman's career received a boost when E & H.T. Anthony, the premier national photographic supply distributor of the day, began buying his plates. For a time, he continued to work at the bank, but offered his resignation in September 1881, after being passed over for a promotion that he felt was rightfully his.
For Eastman, the 1880s was a dynamic decade. In 1884, he hired William Hall Walker, a camera inventor and manufacturer, and together they designed the Eastman-Walker Roll Holder, which allowed photographers to advance paper film through a camera rather than handle individual plates. The roll holder came to define the basic technology of cameras until the introduction of digital photography in the late twentieth century. More immediately, it became the basis for the first Kodak camera, initially known as the "roll holder breast camera." The term Kodak, coined for the occasion by Eastman himself, first appeared in December 1887.
While the first Kodak camera was wildly popular with amateurs, the paper film used in it gave mediocre results. Henry Reichenbach, a chemist hired to work on emulsions, was asked to come up with a transparent, flexible film. Success came in February 1889, when Reichenbach attained a solution that, when flowed over glass and allowed to evaporate, would produce a transparent flexible film that could then be cut into strips and inserted into cameras. This film, which was used by Thomas Edison in his early experiments with the motion-picture camera, became the centerpiece of the Eastman empire, although the patent for it was later successfully contested.
In the 1890s the Eastman company fell on hard times with the departure of Reichenbach and a national financial depression, but it had recovered by 1900, the year that the company introduced the Brownie camera, which sold for one dollar. With the coming of the twentieth century, a combination of innovation, perseverance, and hardheaded business sense had put the Eastman company at the forefront of the photographic industry internationally, a position it has never relinquished.
George Eastman never married, although he carried on a long platonic relationship with Josephine Dickman, a trained singer and the wife of business associate George Dickman, and he became especially close to her after the death of Maria Eastman in 1907. A noted philanthropist, Eastman gave away more than $100 million to charities and made a point of doing so during his lifetime, rather than setting up a foundation. He was also an avid traveler and music lover. Facing the prospect of life in wheelchair, he took his own life with an automatic pistol on March 14, 1932.
written by David Lindsay