It’s hard to imagine a world without photographs.
Today, we take for granted the fact that we can capture and store hundreds of them using a mobile phone. We naturally assume that this leap started with Apple and the iPod, but in reality, the seeds for this portable world were planted long before by the man that founded Kodak.
Before there was Steve Jobs, there was George Eastman. Before there was the iPod and iPhone, there was the Kodak and Brownie cameras.
Eastman transformed the way we took photographs, introducing the world to a whole universe of possibilities that paved the way for future innovations. He is an unheralded figure, despite his numerous contributions to humanity.
His story began in Waterville, New York, on July 12, 1854. His father was an educator, who started a business school, called Eastman Commercial College, before he died when Eastman was just 8 years old. Still a child, Eastman suddenly found himself thrust into the role of the man of his house. He had two older sisters, one of whom was wheelchair bound from polio and died when Eastman was 16 years old.
Like many other high-achievers, Eastman took on financial responsibility at an early age. He dropped out of school when he was 14 years old to help provide for his family, taking on jobs as a messenger and office boy. He also began studying accounting as a means for commanding a higher salary, eventually landing a position as a bookkeeper at the Rochester Savings Bank.
Eastman worked at the bank for several years, where he was able to generate a steady income and amass healthy savings. By 1877, he had enough money to begin exploring investments in real estate. He made plans to travel to Hispaniola, which was experiencing a boom in real estate at the time.
A friend suggested that he document the trip using photography, so Eastman purchased the latest equipment and was struck by how heavy and expensive everything was. It sparked his curiosity and he began researching ways to make photography less cumbersome and more affordable.
He came across a formula for dry plate emulsion in a British publication and sought out the tutelage of two amateur photographers, George Monroe and George Selden. He immersed himself in the world of photography, purchasing more chemicals and equipment, and reading everything he could get his hands on.
Eastman eventually created a gelatin-based paper film and device for coating dry plates, which was revolutionary at the time. He demonstrated the convenience of gelatin dry plates over the cumbersome wet plate process. Dry plates could now be exposed and then brought back to the darkroom, eliminating the need to bring chemicals and processing equipment in the field.
In 1880, Eastman began to commercially manufacture dry plates, founding the Eastman Dry Plate Company. With the emulsion-coating machine in his factory, he was able to standardize the plates, resulting in evenly coated, mass-produced plates made in a variety of sizes for professional photographers.
His career received a boost when E & H.T. Anthony, the premier national photographic supply distributor of the day, began buying his plates. He continued to work at the bank, but offered his resignation in September 1881, after he was passed over for a promotion that he felt was rightfully his.
Eastman built his success on hiring the best people in the field and collaborating with other pioneers. In 1884, he hired William Hall Walker, a camera inventor and manufacturer, and together they designed the Eastman-Walker Roll Holder, which allowed photographers to advance paper film through a camera rather than handle individual plates.
He also hired Henry Reichenbach, a chemist specializing in emulsions, to develop a transparent, flexible film, which he accomplished in February 1889. This film, which was used by Thomas Edison in his early experiments with the motion-picture camera, became the centerpiece of the Eastman empire.
Eastman recognized the importance of intellectual property and began acquiring smaller companies that owned valuable patents. He proved to be a shrewd businessman, partnering up with a key competitor at the time, Charles Abbott, to negotiate the purchase of raw paper from the General Paper Company. The two men used their control over the supply of raw paper to create a new entity that comprised Eastman’s paper division, Abbott’s company, and two other major photographic paper companies. Eastman acquired it less than 3 years later.
Eastman introduced the Kodak camera in 1888, the world’s first easy-to-use, automatic camera. It retailed for $25 at the time, equivalent to almost $650 today, and came loaded with 100 shots. As part of their purchase, customers sent back their used up camera to the Eastman Company, who developed the film, processed the photos, and sent them back to the customer.
This single product transformed the role of photography in people’s lives, immediately making it more accessible. Eastman followed this up in 1900 when he introduced the Brownie Camera, which was sold for $1, equivalent to around $25 today. Suddenly, photography was no longer exclusive to the elite. Almost everyone could afford their own camera.
In July 1928, Eastman and Thomas Edison introduced their color motion picture film to the world. The film was called Kodacolor. The special black-and-white film was shot on a camera fitted with a filtered lens, and once developed, the print was projected with a similar filter and the image appeared in natural color on the screen.
In 1930, he gave a free camera to any child that turned 12 that year. Commemorating the Eastman Company’s 50th anniversary, the campaign gave away more than 500,000 cameras in the United States and Canada. By putting a camera in the hands of a young person looking for a hobby, Eastman helped to foster a generation of photo enthusiasts and lifelong customers.
Besides establishing a reputation as a visionary entrepreneur and innovator, Eastman was a generous philanthropist, making valuable contributions to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
On December 10, 1924, he announced that he would donate the majority of his fortune. In the short term, this meant $30 million for four institutions. Two of these were of higher learning for African Americans: the Hampton Institute and the Tuskegee Institute. The others were the University of Rochester, where he had already established the Eastman School of Music. For the remaining eight years of his life, he continued to give smaller amounts to favorite causes such as dental clinics and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra.
George Eastman committed suicide on March 14, 1932 with a single gunshot wound through the heart. He had been suffered debilitating pain in his spine and had become depressed as a result. His suicide note read, “To my friends, my work is done. Why wait? GE.”
During his lifetime, Eastman donated $100 million to various organizations, with most of his money going to the University of Rochester and to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to build their programs and facilities (under the alias "Mr. Smith").
The Rochester Institute of Technology has a building dedicated to Eastman, in recognition of his support and substantial donations. MIT installed a plaque of Eastman on one of the buildings he funded. Students rub the nose of Eastman's image on the plaque for good luck.
Security Trust Company of Rochester was the executor of Eastman's estate. His entire estate was bequeathed to the University of Rochester.
The innovations in photography that Eastman pioneered continue to impact our lives today. The company he built still stands more than a century later and remains synonymous with the world of photography.
For someone who has done so much for humanity, Eastman is a relatively unknown figure. A man who embodied a blend of unique qualities. He was a visionary, designer at heart, and shrewd businessman. He loved adventure and was one of the biggest philanthropists of his era.
It’s hard to picture the phrase “standing on the shoulder of giants” applying to anyone more than George Eastman. It’s something worth remembering next time we snap a photo with our iPhone.
Here are some things you might not have known about George Eastman:
- He was one of the first American businessmen to embrace employee profit sharing.
- He contributed more than $100 million of his wealth to philanthropic purposes during his lifetime.
- He employed an organist to perform for him every morning as he ate breakfast.
- The name Kodak was inspired by the town Nodak in North Dakota, where inventor David Houston lived.
- He made numerous donations to MIT under the pseudonym, Mr Smith.
And three lessons from his life:
Surround Yourself With Smart People.
George Eastman built his business on hiring and collaborating with the smartest people in the industry. He recognized the importance of hiring good people and compensating them. He marked his start by hiring photographers to teach him about the industry. He brought on a camera inventor to co-develop a roll holder and chemists to help him develop film. He even collaborated with Thomas Edison to create color motion picture film.
In addition to surrounding himself with highly qualified people, he made sure he rewarded them for their contributions. The Eastman Company offered its employees stock options, on-site healthcare, and flexible schedules, among many other benefits.
They say you are the average of the people you spend the most time with. If that’s the case, Eastman was at the top of the pile. His company’s biggest strength was its people. His biggest asset was his ability to identify and hire the best people.
Whatever you build in life, prioritize working with the best people in your field. Surround yourself with people that are smarter than you and reward them for their contributions. It will pay off eventually.
Invest In Marketing.
An underrated aspect of Eastman’s rise to prominence was his marketing acumen. It began with the name he chose for his first camera: Kodak. A brand name, as he saw it, "must mean nothing. If the name has no dictionary definition, it must be associated only with your product."
In almost no time, Kodak was being used as a noun, verb, and adjective. People who used the product came to be known as Kodakers, and the letter K became suddenly became popular for names: Kola, Kristmas, Kolumbus Day. The Kodak Kid and Kodak Komics sprouted up, as did Captain Kodak, a novel for young adults by Alexander Black.
Eastman also had the company’s logo and products painted on every truck and train used for distribution, as well as on his office and manufacturing buildings. The early Kodak ads show this wisdom at work, as he made sure to highlight how his product benefited families.
A one-time amateur painter, he even showed a certain flair for design in these ads, running them in big-block print with elegant line drawings at a time when the typical ad was busy with information. According to tradition, it was also Eastman who hit upon the idea of the bright yellow packaging that even today stands out on shelves full of merchandise.
Eastman was so successful because he was able to combine a superior product with stellar marketing. The blend of clever branding, memorable and relatable advertising, and prominent positioning, ensured that Kodak quickly became a household name. This legacy lives on today.
Innovators often underestimate the importance of marketing, allowing it to become an afterthought. This can be a fatal mistake. Whatever your industry, think about marketing and brand positioning early and often. Invest in marketing to the best of your ability, so that you give your work the best chance of being seen and succeeding.
Almost every major success story starts with a gamble of some kind. Eastman’s is no different. First, he invested money into learning about photography on instinct. He left a steady, well-paying job to pursue an uncertain career in an industry he knew nothing about, despite the fact that he grew up poor.
At the beginning of his foray into photography, Eastman took a risk that defined his future. He went to London to sell the rights to his coating machine, despite the fact that he hadn’t yet patented it. He used up $400 of savings, a large amount at the time, and went to London without knowing anyone there.
On his first day in London, Eastman marched into the offices of the British Journal of Photography. He didn’t receive a warm welcome and instead, had to convince the journal's editor, W. B. Bolton, of the value of his machine.
His gambit impressed Bolton, who promised to introduce him to some influential people, including Charles Fry, whose partner was Charles Bennett, the same man whose dry-plate process he had adapted for his own use.
After observing that Bennett and Fry were unable to fill their orders using what was considered cutting edge dry plate machines, Eastman returned to America and contacted George Selden, one of his mentors and an accomplished patent attorney. Together they applied for a patent on his coating machine in September 1879.
Eastman got his start by taking a massive gamble. It was a risk that paid off handsomely, by connecting him with some of the most influential people in his industry and giving him the confidence to pursue a patent on his own machine.
There is rarely any major reward without risk. Be bold. Think big. And go after it. Taking a risk is how you create your own luck. Put yourself in the position to succeed. You never know what could happen. It might offer you the break you’ve been waiting for.