People & Events
Henry M. Reichenbach was in some ways George Eastman's best employee and in some ways his worst. In this, he resembled a fictional character Eastman had read about in his childhood.
In 1885 Eastman and William Walker had experienced great success with the Eastman-Walker Roll Holder, but by the following year it was clear that this system of inventions, which allowed photographers to advance a series of exposures through the camera, left much to be desired. Most notably, the paper film used in it produced grainy images. Eastman accordingly turned to Dr. Samuel A. Lattimore, the head of the chemistry department at the University of Rochester, who recommended the services of Reichenbach, Lattimore's undergraduate assistant and something of an expert in the area of glass plates.
Reichenbach came to work for Eastman in August 1886, and after researching emulsions briefly he was assigned the task of finding a substitute for paper as a film base. This was easier said than done. Depending on the approach, the film would become too fragile or too thin, too greasy or too cloudy, or just plain wrinkled. But Reichenbach was patient and by December 1888, he and Eastman had produced a nitrocellulose solution in wood alcohol that seemed to show promise. Two months later, he explained to the board of directors how a precise solution, flowed over glass and allowed to evaporate, would produce a transparent, flexible film that could then be peeled off, cut into strips and inserted into cameras.
Originally, both Eastman and Reichenbach filed patents on this technology. Eastman found himself in a generous mood, however, and withdrew his patent. Reichenbach's patent was issued on December 10, 1889, by which time Kodak had been selling nitrocellulose film for three months. The effect of Reichenbach's success was palpable: that same year, a new corporation was organized, capitalized at one million dollars and called simply "The Eastman Company."
Eastman's largess did not extend to betrayals, however. By the end of 1891, Eastman had come to rely on Reichenbach not only for his chemical expertise but for almost every aspect of his business. At the end of his tether, Reichenbach resolved to find his own path, and made plans with several other employees to start up their own company.
When Eastman caught wind of this "conspiracy" (as he called it), he may well have recalled an adventure novel from his childhood written by Oliver Optic, in which one Robert Shuffles is taken aboard a kind of reform-school ship, where he organizes a "Chain League" bent on overthrowing the benevolent and childless captain. Oliver Optic's protagonist is forgiven in the end, but only because his conscience drives him to confess his misdeeds. Reichenbach, on the other hand, suffered no such pangs; his plans came to Eastman's attention through "informants." On New Year's Day 1892, Eastman wrote a letter to Reichenbach and his "ring," informing them simply that their services were no longer required.
The Photo Materials Company, as Reichenbach's renegade outfit was called, managed to cause some havoc in Eastman's ranks. Understanding the film process as he did, Reichenbach had made arrangements to team up with the Celluloid Company, which held the rights to the celluloid that Eastman needed to make his film. Not surprisingly, the celluloid shipped to Eastman soon started to deteriorate in quality -- it was yellow and stuck to the glass. That the Photo Materials Company quickly went out of business was cold comfort, even if it allowed Eastman to buy up its property and machinery at bargain-basement prices.
In 1896 Reichenbach joined with John E. Morey of the Rochester Cut Sole company and Albert Will, a manufacturer of stoves and ranges, to found a company that manufactured Alta cameras. At this time, though, the Eastman Kodak Company of New York was an international corporation and was already dominating the field of amateur photography.
Still, Eastman never forgave Reichenbach for his betrayal. This made it all the more ironic that Eastman later found it necessary to defend Reichenbach's patent vigorously against similar claims made by the Reverend Hannibal Goodwin, in a court battle that went on for decades.
written by David Lindsay