George Eastman

Our March 2002 program was the video presentation "Wizard of Photography" which is available from PBS who aired it as part of the American Experience series. Bob Wilson provided the tape and Mark Singer provided the VCR and monitors.

You can visit the PBS web site and find out more information about this video including an interesting article by Reese Jenkins, author of Images & Enterprise, a superb history of photography in America from the business perspective.

Prior to Eastman's success with the Kodak camera, all the major photographic improvements came from Europe especially the wet-plate and later the dry-plate processes.

THE VIDEO begins with a brief background on photography and the importance of family snapshots. Eastman was photographed at 3 years of age (lower left snapshot below). An only son of middle class parents, his father died when Eastman was seven years old, leaving the family destitute. Eastman quit school at 14 to help support his mother.

WET-PLATES. The need to succeed was a burning fire in the young man. While working as a book keeper for a bank, young George was investing in land. He bought a camera to make a record of the land holdings and discovered the wet plate process to be so complex he had to take lessons from a professional to use his new camera. Remember, wet-plate was just that! The photographer made his own plates on the spot, sensitized them, exposed them in his camera and developed the image before leaving the scene and before the emulsion dried.

DRY-PLATES. When he learnt about the invention of dry-plates in England, he tried his hand at the new medium (dry plates retained their sensitivity after the emulsion dried permitting them to be made days in advance of their use. While commercial plates were becoming available, George made his own. The quality was so good a local photographer recommended them to Anthony & Co. who agreed to market Eastman plates. In 1881 Eastman opened his dry-plate factory, rushing there from the bank each day to personally make the emulsion. He quit the bank when passed over for a promotion. At the time he had six employees and was selling $4,000 of dry-plates each month.

ROLL FILM. Business growth prompted Eastman to hire a chemist to improve his emulsions. In an effort to lighten the load on the photographer, Eastman worked on a means to create a plate using a flexible backing rather than glass. This also permitted him to make a roll rather than individual plates. His 1885 roll back was a technical success but a business failure. The poor quality emulsion was shunned by the professionals (The emulsion had to be 'stripped' off the optically imperfect plastic base and pressed on glass to print).

KODAK. Two years later Eastman capitalized on the roll film by creating a new camera he named the Kodak. A local carpenter made the first bodies, a local machinist made the simple shutter, and Bausch & Lomb made the lens. The camera came with a 100 shot roll, a pull string shutter set, a button release, a winding key and no focus or aperture adjustments. To complete the simplicity, the user sent the whole camera back after 100 exposures. Eastman processed the film, made prints and returned the camera with a fresh roll. He sold 13,000 the first year, developing and printing 6,000 pictures/day. At a price of $25.00, the Kodak cost about 3 months wages. Using the imperfect stripping film made processing expensive.

ROLL FILM II. 1893 was a low point for Eastman. He had fired his chemist and associates for starting their own business, not realizing their importance to his business. He went through a series of chemists as his sales plummeted. Between the 1890s depression and poor quality, he finally had to stop producing film. Things improved when he hired chemist William Stubert. By 1889 Stubert succeeded in devising a superior roll film emulsion coated on celluloid. While Hannibal Goodwin had patented such a mechanism two years earlier, Eastman received a patent as well for his more specific process, setting the stage for a lengthy court battle over the next decade.

BROWNIES. In 1900 the Brownie camera was launched for children. 150,000 were sold that year- more than all the Kodaks made in the previous 12 years! The inexpensive cameras were marketed using the popular Brownie characters created in 1883 by Palmer Cox of Granby, Quebec.

Watch the video to learn more details about this amazing entrepreneur and his role in the rapid evolution of photography in the last century.

ABOUT THE IMAGES. The "snapshot" montage below was created with Photoshop using some images taken from the television with a Coolpix 990 camera. The image quality from the TV screen isn't sufficient to create large images on the computer. The white border around each "snap-shot" was made in Photoshop to imitate the prints from the 1950s.


Bob Carter


PBS Web Site. Lots of great material.

Reese Jenkins wrote this book as part of a business series for Johns Hopkins University. Its perspective on the photographic industry in America during the formative years is unequalled.

Brownie Camera. This image links to Kodak's page celebrating the 100 year anniversary of the Brownie. A beautifully designed page well worth the visit.

Story of Kodak. Published in 1990 just as the digital revolution was beginning to gain momentum. A 392 page coffee table size colourful tale of this famous firm. Makes an interesting contrast with Images & Enterprise.


I took a few "snapshots" during the video... visit the PBS site for more information!

Back to Past Programs
return to the home pageMain Index
Facelift & Design © 1999 Zero Cattle
Page 1998,9 by The Photographic Historical Society of Canada
Webmaster: Bob Carter
-- See What's New for more details

Lost?   Find your way with our Site Map!