1854, Waterville, NY
1932, Rochester, NY
Eastman believed that a brand name should have no dictionary definition so that it was associated with the product alone. He coined the term Kodak because he thought the word was easy to remember and difficult to misspell.
Photos: Courtesy George Eastman House
A junior bookkeeper innovated processes and equipment to simplify photography, introduced the concept of the "snapshot," and created a way for millions of consumer-photographers to document their lives and preserve memories.
Losses Early in Life
George Eastman was born on July 12, 1854, in Waterville, New York. He lost his father when he was eight, and was raised by his mother, Maria. His older sister, Katie, died of polio in 1870, while George was still a teenager. If anyone could capitalize on a tool like photography -- which could document loved ones' likenesses for all time -- it would be someone like Eastman.
Pupil and Inventor
Invented in the 1830s, photography was a well-established professional occupation by the 1870s, but it was not a hobby for the masses. It required a knowledge of chemistry, mastery of cumbersome equipment, and an interest in laborious wet-plate processes. Eastman, in his early twenties, became the pupil of two Rochester, New York, amateur photographers, George Monroe and George Selden. He experimented in dry-plate photography, and developed a formula for gelatin-based paper film and a machine for coating dry plates. He went into business selling dry plates in April 1880, and soon resigned from his bookkeeping position at a local bank to focus on his fledgling company.
In 1885, with camera inventor William Hall Walker, Eastman patented the Eastman-Walker Roll Holder, which allowed photographers to advance multiple exposures of paper film through a camera, rather than handle individual single-shot plates. The roll holder would define the basic technology of cameras until the introduction of digital photography. It also became the basis for the first mass-produced Kodak camera, initially known as the "roll holder breast camera," which retailed for $25 and started a photography craze. The term "Kodak" was coined by Eastman himself in 1887. In 1889, Eastman hired chemist Henry Reichenbach, who developed a transparent, flexible film which could be cut into strips and inserted into cameras. Thomas Edison would order the film to use in the motion-picture camera he was developing -- and it would soon become the centerpiece of the Eastman empire.
Photography for the Masses
During the 1890s, Eastman expanded his business, buying patents and investing in research and development. Faster films and smaller cameras meant photography could produce more spontaneous pictures -- "snapshots." In 1900, he introduced the "Brownie" camera, which sold for $1 and was a bullseye in the mass market. Eastman's insight was that his chemists could do the "photo finishing," but anyone could take pictures with a simple camera like the Brownie. Eastman had hit on a memorable slogan: You press the button, we do the rest." His business grew rapidly, helped by jingles and ads positioning the brand as an essential tool for preserving memories. A 1902 ad lectured, "A vacation without a Kodak is a vacation wasted."
A blizzard of profits enabled Eastman to build a 50-room mansion in Rochester.
Eastman continued to improve photography, introducing innovations including a process for color photography which he called Kodachrome. A generous philanthropist, Eastman gave away more than $100 million to charities, mostly in Rochester, during his lifetime. As he aged, he had increasing difficulty standing and walking. He could foresee living out his last years as his mother had, an incapacitated invalid. Facing the prospect of life in a wheelchair, he took his own life with an automatic pistol on March 14, 1932. His suicide note read, "To my friends. My work is done --, Why wait?"