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Eastman Patents a Dry-Plate Process

Dry Plate When George Eastman began to study photography in 1877, pictures were taken using a process called wet-plate photography. He later described this process when recalling his first photographic excursions through Rochester with his mentor George Monroe:
We used the wet collodion process, taking a very clean glass plate and coating it with a thin solution of egg white. This was to make the subsequent emulsion stick. Then we coated the plate with a solution of guncotton and alcohol mixed with bromide salts. When the emulsion was set, but still moist, the plate was dipped into a solution of nitrate of silver, the sensitizing agent. That had to be done in the dark. The plate, wet and shielded from the light, was put into the camera. Now you took your picture.
Eastman resolved from the beginning to simplify this process. When he wasn't working at his bank job, he continued experimenting with photography and, to expand his knowledge, took out a subscription to the "British Journal of Photography." The first issue he received, which arrived in February 1878, contained intriguing news: Charles Bennett had developed a formula that made dry-plate emulsions faster.

This was all the encouragement Eastman needed. Untrained and uncredentialed, he began devouring the photographic literature and corresponding with as many fellow amateurs as he could find. He contacted a professional, one Carey Lea, and harangued him with questions until the teacher became the student. Often his mother found in the morning asleep on the floor.

Eastman initially experimented with his formula of ripened gelatin and silver bromide by pouring it from a teakettle onto a glass plate, then distributing it with a glass rod. This method was time-consuming and therefore expensive, however, so he had a coating machine built to his specifications. In his overarching pursuit of simplicity, he also had a camera built that was lighter than the standard ones available. With this system, he took his first dry-plate photograph: a view of the Charles P. Ham building across the street from his window.

Eastman's attention to a coating machine and a lightweight camera show him thinking in terms of manufacturing costs from an early stage. And indeed, at a time when dry-plate innovators clogged the advertising pages of photographic journals, efficiency in production is what would make Eastman stand out. But in 1878 he was still a lowly bank clerk with little capital at his disposal. In a show of some insensitivity, he called on his uncle, Horace Eastman, for a loan, but Horace's wife had just been committed to an insane asylum, and no money was forthcoming for those quarters.

Undaunted, Eastman devised a riskier plan: he would go to London, where the dry-plate business was growing, sell the rights to his coating machine and use the money to start his own business at home. So off Eastman went, $400 drained from his savings account, without a personal contact in London to his name and, more critically, without having procured a patent on his coating machine.

On his first day in London, Eastman marched into the offices of the "British Journal of Photography." The journal's prestigious editor, W. B. Bolton, was incredulous and perhaps even a bit testy a first, but when Eastman showed what he could do, Bolton promised to open doors for him. This led Eastman to Charles Fry, whose partner was Charles Bennett -- the same man whose dry-plate process he had adapted for his own use. Seeing that Bennett and Fry were unable to fill their orders using what was considered the state-of-the-art in the dry-plate business, Eastman returned to America and contacted George Selden, another of his mentors and an accomplished patent attorney. Together they applied for a patent on his coating machine in September 1879.

While waiting for results from the Patent Office, Eastman continued to negotiate with Fry in London. In the end nothing came of it. But by April 1880, when he received a patent for a "method and apparatus for coating plates for use in photography," word of his coating machine was beginning to spread. The implication for photographers was clear: if gelatin dry-plate photography could be made viable, they would no longer have to make their own plates on site but could buy them pre-packaged from a manufacturer.

Eager to take advantage of this momentum, Eastman rented a room above a music store in Rochester's financial district and began turning out dry plates with his coating machine. The factory was a study in ferocious economy, with compartments for everything, right down to his towels. This dedication to efficiency quickly paid off. By July, he had a new, improved coating machine to promote. By August, Edward Anthony, head of the most prestigious national photographic supply house in America, was buying Eastman's plates. Capital arrived before the year was out from Henry Strong, a family friend.

Three years after taking his first photograph, George Eastman was on his way.

written by David Lindsay

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