The Camera George Eastman Patented That Changed History

IT was an invention that would literally transform the way the world saw itself. On this day, 130 years ago, George Eastman received a patent for “certain new and useful Improvements in Cameras” that he had made.

Until then photographers went through a long process to take a picture. They had to insert large photographic plates in the back of their devices, remove them and then develop an image in a dark room by hand.

Eastman’s new camera came with a paper film already installed. Snappers just took their photographs and then sent the whole thing off to Eastman’s company to have the pictures developed. It opened up photography to amateurs.

With Eastman’s cheaper, more compact, easy-to-use camera, no particular expertise was needed. On the same day he received the patent, September 4, 1888, he also registered a name for his film and camera company — Kodak. For more than a century Kodak dominated the photographic industry.

Eastman was born on a farm in Waterville, New York, in 1854. When his father’s health started to deteriorate in 1860, the family sold the farm and moved to Rochester. Eastman later quit school to find a job to support his mother and sisters.

He worked in the insurance industry before being employed as a bookkeeper at a bank. In 1877 he planned on taking a trip and bought camera equipment to record the experience. But he never took the trip. Instead, he took up photography as a hobby.

To make it easier to take photos and carry the cumbersome equipment around, Eastman started to streamline the process. In 1878 he improved on the platemaking procedure that previously involved wet chemicals with a new dry-plate process.

Next, he invented a machine for automatically producing dry plates. By then it had become far more than a hobby and in 1880 he opened the Eastman Dry Plate Co. He gave up his clerical career to run the company full time, with investor Henry Strong as company president.

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Then Eastman looked at replacing the fragile glass with something more flexible that would allow quicker loading to take the next photo. At the time some cameras were using chemically treated paper rolls, so Eastman bought the patent for a paper winder and installed it in the camera he designed and patented in 1888. He sold the cameras with the roll of negative paper sealed inside. He called it the Kodak, a name that was easy to spell and impossible to mispronounce. He also liked the letter K.

Those who bought the camera, took 100 pictures and returned the whole thing to his company, where the film was processed. His slogan was, “You press the button, we’ll do the rest”. Suddenly photography was open to anybody. The number of photographs of everyday people, objects and situations grew. Consequently, history after 1888 is more comprehensively documented. Also, our obsession with images of ourselves can be traced to Kodak making photos easier to take.

In 1889 Kodak introduced flexible transparent roll film on a new material known as celluloid, which became the preferred standard for most cameras, including motion pictures. In the 1890’s the growing number of motion picture producers needing celluloid helped make Eastman’s company a fortune.

He kept innovating — next with colour film, nonflammable film and, in 1900, he introduced a camera so simple even children could take snaps.

Developed by Frank Brownell, a Kodak employee, it was basically a cardboard box with a lens, a shutter, a button, a hinged lid and film roller.

Covered in “leatherette”, a leather-look cardboard, it came in five colours, one of which was brown. Dubbed the Box Brownie, the name was neither a tribute to Brownell, nor was it because the boxes were brown. In its advertising Kodak used characters from children’s literature, fun-loving sprites known as Brownies. The Box Brownie created more photographers and different versions were made into the ’60s.

With a virtual monopoly of the photographic industry, Eastman became hugely wealthy, but in the 1920s he gave half his fortune away to educational institutions, hospitals and charities. In 1930 he made a gift of 500,000 Brownies to children turning 12 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his company.

At 77 Eastman committed suicide leaving a note that said “My work is done, why wait?”

Kodak remained a major player until the late 1990s when the digital revolution cut into its film sales.

In 2012 the company avoided going under financially by a comprehensive reorganization of its business, and it remains today as a reminder of how in 1888 Eastman changed the way we captured our world.

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Daily Telegraph brought us this article.