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George Eastman: The Final Shot

by David Lindsay

The end of a life often explains a great deal about how it was lived, and the manner of George Eastman's death is no exception.

At the age of 74, Eastman had grown noticeably thin and weak, and he had difficulty standing. Two years later, his gait had become slow and shuffling. A doctor of today would have diagnosed spinal stenosis, but even without a name to describe his condition, he knew that an invalid's life was in store for him. Having seen his mother live out her last two years in a wheelchair, he also knew well what that meant.

Normally tight-lipped about his personal affairs, Eastman had been letting slip how he felt about his circumstances. One occasion found him confessing to a friend that there wasn't much left to live for. A more vivid expression involved one of his extravagant domestic routines. He had long employed Harold Gleason, an organist, to perform for him in his own home as he ate his morning breakfast. One of Eastman's most common requests was *Marche Romaine*, from a Gounod opera, and, as his health deteriorated, he gradually came to refer to this piece as "my funeral march."

On March 14, 1932, Eastman invited some friends to witness a change of his will. After some joking and warm conversation, he asked them to leave so that he could write a note. Moments later, he shot himself once in the heart with an automatic pistol. The note found by the household staff read simply: "To my friends, My work is done--, Why wait?" When his casket was carried out of the Eastman House, the accompanying music was *Marche Romaine*.

Suicide is inevitably a puzzling act, and all the more so when carried out by an inventor, because it is so rare. Indeed, besides Eastman, only two famous American inventors have died by their own hand.

One of these was John Fitch, who in 1787 demonstrated his steamboat, the first working example of such in the world, to the attendees of the Constitutional Convention, only to be derided and scorned by the crowd. Pressing ahead, Fitch organized steamboat excursions between Philadelphia and Trenton to less than enthusiastic acclaim. The situation reached the height of absurdity when the Patent Office issued patents to both Fitch and his rival, James Rumsey, for essentially the same invention. Fitch's complaints to Thomas Jefferson, who as Secretary of State was also empowered to prosecute patents, were to no avail. On July 7, 1798, in a boardinghouse in Bardstown, Kentucky, Fitch wrote a note that lamented "Nobody will believe that poor John Fitch can do anything worthy of attention," and ended his troubles with a draught of poison.

Edwin Armstrong suffered much the same misfortunes as Fitch. The inventor of FM radio, the super-regenerative circuit and the superheterodyne -- all of which represented enormous leaps forward for radio -- Armstrong was mired for most of his life in lawsuits. The bitterest of these contests was with David Sarnoff, the mastermind behind RCA. By 1954, when it was clear that Sarnoff would win the rights to use FM radio technology, Armstrong put on an overcoat, a scarf and pair of gloves, removed the air conditioner from his 13th-floor apartment in New York City... and jumped. (Sarnoff's first reaction upon hearing the news was to say: "I did not kill Armstrong.")

George Eastman suffered some of the same problems as did these two Inventors -- most notably the crushing weight of patent battles. Like them, he ultimately lost the fight for one of his most cherished inventions; for him it was transparent flexible film, the patent for which was awarded posthumously to Hannibal Goodwin. Yet for all that, Eastman went on to build a hugely successful business, which neither Fitch nor Armstrong was ever able to do.

One might forgive Eastman because he was suffering from a debilitating disease, but it is not quite enough to interpret his suicide as an exercise of his right to die (which he supported on a political level). Successful inventors, having seen the benefits of perseverance, typically do not go gentle into that good night. Thomas Edison suffered Bright's disease and a host of other illnesses in his final years, yet he plowed ahead with his characteristic dynamism right to the very end. George Westinghouse, for his part, approached death with plans to design an electric wheelchair that would help him get around. And, in fact, Eastman himself had known severe emotional pain, if not physical agony, many times during his life as he watched his loved ones die around him.

But Eastman parted company from his famous contemporaries in another respect as well. In addition to being optimists, inventors have generally found it difficult to keep their personalities in check. Their profession encourages them to brag and complain and, as often as not, to lose themselves entirely in their own enthusiasms, as Edison did when he embarked on a half-serious plan to communicate with the dead. For an inventor to appear mad almost comes with the territory.

If there is one thing that can be said about Eastman, it is that he was a rational man. Throughout his life, he sounded the same themes again and again -- adventure, happiness and control, and the greatest of these was control. The early death of his father and his family's subsequent poverty stamped him with an insatiable need for stability, which he found in bachelorhood and a financial empire and held close ever after. As far as he was concerned, there was no world beyond the one he could dominate. Even when he punctuated his labors with travel, his drive for order went with him in his compulsion to plan out every last detail of his itinerary. In this light, Eastman's career can be seen as act of self-sacrifice. With one of his cameras in hand, it became possible to capture an instant of abandon, even happiness, and so we came to possess, as part of our human heritage, images of people smiling on adventures large and small. Of course, Eastman was often caught in camera in far-off locations as well, but in the end one fact is inescapable: one must look long and hard to find a picture of George Eastman smiling. In harnessing his impulses, he gave the world an experience that he never permitted himself.

Having borrowed the word "snapshot" from a hunting term to describe a bullet fired at random, Eastman proved unable to do anything haphazardly -- certainly not hunting or even photography, both of which he approached with the same fastidiousness he brought to industrial manufacturing. It is perhaps the supreme irony of his life, then, that the last bullet he fired was no snapshot at all, but the final step in an event carefully designed to bring out the desired results. It was, in other words, simply the most efficient thing to do.

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