picture this

Scientist? Businessman? The inventor who popularized photography spent his fortune well.

by Frank Wicks

The American Society of Mechanical Engineers


The adage that a picture is worth a thousand words is a flawed understatement. Our memories, knowledge, and opinions rely heavily on pictures. Words can only provide an explanation to information contained in a good picture. Time always moves forward, but a picture allows us to look back to some prior moment in time.

Today we take it for granted: We make moving or still images, store them as magnetic patterns, and share them by e-mail. Those old enough to be out of college clearly remember the previous generation of photography, involving spools of film instead of floppy discs, when resolution was determined by emulsion instead of memory. The Instamatic and the Nikon 35 mm single-lens reflex camera are direct descendants of the technology that made picture-taking possible for everyone.

That popularization of photography is traceable to the inspiration of one man, George Eastman, a small-town boy born 150 years ago this month.

We have only a vague vision of what life was like before photography. From their earliest history, humans recorded their experiences with pictures, beginning with drawings on cave walls. As civilization advanced, the wealthy hired master artists to paint their portraits and surroundings.


George Eastman (second from left) at a gathering associated with the Edison Scholarship in 1929. The man on the left is identified as Lewis Perry. The others (from left) are Charles Lindbergh, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and MIT president Samuel Stratton.

Some Renaissance artists improved the fidelity of their draftsmanship by using grids and graph paper. The result can be described as an early forerunner of digital photography. Others used a dark chamber with a pinhole opening on one side and a paper screen on the other. This device, called a camera obscura, let the artist trace an inverted image on canvas or paper.

Photography, which means writing with light, would require replacing the artist's paper with a chemically coated screen, exposing the screen to the image, and then stabilizing the resulting picture. The first practical photographic process was announced in France in 1839 by Louis Daguerre, who had achieved fame as a designer of theater stages and lighting effects. Daguerre's success was the culmination of many years of experiments he had started with the scientist Nicephore Niepce, who had died in 1833.

Daguerre's process was complicated. A light-sensitive screen was prepared in a dark room. It comprised a sheet of copper plated with silver, polished, and exposed to iodine vapor. The screen was placed in the camera and exposed to the inverted pattern of light reflected by the external image. It was then removed and developed by stabilization with mercury vapor.

The picture resulted from the tendency of the mercury to react more strongly with the parts of the screen that had received the most light. The screen was then washed of any remaining light-sensitive material, and dried. The resulting picture, called a daguerreotype, was mounted under glass.

Samuel Morse, the American artist and inventor, was traveling throughout Europe to promote his telegraph when he met Louis Daguerre in 1839. Morse learned the process and returned to New York, where he opened a daguerreotype portrait and teaching studio.

Matthew Brady learned the process from Morse. He opened his own gallery in New York in 1844 and Washington in 1849. Brady received fame with his prize-winning portraits of famous Americans and foreign dignitaries.

With the start of the Civil War in 1861, Brady packed a horse-drawn wagon with his photographic equipment. He proceeded to document the four years of generals and soldiers and death and destruction for the fascinated and horrified public. Action pictures were not possible.

Photography took about 10 seconds of exposure time, along with substantial preparation. Thus, there is no photo of President Abraham Lincoln delivering his famous two-minute Gettysburg address in 1863.


George Eastman would revolutionize photography and create an industrial empire. His revolutionary vision was that taking pictures should be fast, easy, and affordable. He would invent the technologies and manufacture the products that would make virtually everyone an amateur photographer, or moviemaker. He was also a marketing genius, who understood the global demand for his products. He created the trademark name Kodak that he judged would be recognizable and pronounceable in any language.

He was born 150 years ago on July 12, 1854, in the central New York village of Waterville. His father, George Washington Eastman, was an educated man with driving ambitions, who started a plant nursery near Waterville and Eastman Commercial College in Rochester, which taught penmanship, bookkeeping, and spelling. He commuted weekly by stagecoach and train between these enterprises and his growing family.

The son was eight years old in 1862, when his father died. His mother, the former Maria Kilbourn, was a well-educated woman, but was left with substantial debts. She moved to Rochester and supported the family by operating a boarding house. Young George received a quality education until the age of 14, when he went to work as a bank messenger.

He first ventured into photography at the age of 20, when he had advanced to junior bookkeeper at the bank. Eastman was interesting in speculating in property in Central America. He planned on traveling and taking some photographs for potential investors. He bought $100 worth of photographic equipment and paid $5 for photography lessons from the Rochester lawyer and inventor George Selden.

George Eastman learned the complexity of the process, and the difficulties in packing and traveling with the mass of chemicals and equipment. He concluded that a simpler process was needed. Problems produce opportunities. Eastman shifted his ambitions from speculating in real estate to simplifying photography.

The first step would be to replace the wet plate process, which required preparation at the time of taking the picture, with a dry plate process that could be prepared in advance. Attempts by others to prepare dry plates had resulted in expensive pictures of marginal quality.

Like Thomas Edison, George Eastman would teach himself chemistry. He studied the books and literature. His laboratory was his mother's kitchen. He spent many sleepless nights mixing and testing formulas. Success came with an emulsion of silver bromide and gelatin. He developed a roller that made it much easier to apply the emulsion to the glass. Because Europe remained the center of the photographic industry, he traveled to London in 1879 to patent his glass-coating machine. He returned and was also awarded a United States patent.

George Selden, who tutored Eastman in photography, also served as Eastman's patent attorney. The same George Selden would earn fame as the inventor of the internal engine-powered automobile. His patent would be sold to early automakers, but successfully challenged by Henry Ford in a landmark intellectual property case.

Eastman's next challenge was production and marketing. The established supply house for photography had been founded by the brothers Edward and Henry Anthony in New York City. Edward was a Columbia University educated engineer. He had also started with daguerreotype lessons from Samuel Morse and then operated several studios. Henry Anthony was a banker.

The customers for photo equipment were mostly conservative professionals who were reluctant to shift from wet plates. However, there were some amateurs who might be willing to accept an inferior dry plate process for the sake of convenience and cost. In December 1880, the Anthony brothers cautiously ordered $1,000 worth of Eastman's plates.

Now capital was needed for manufacturing, and it came from Henry Strong. He had been a Navy paymaster during the Civil War, and returned to Rochester and acquired his uncle's company, which prospered by making buggy whips. He had also been a boarder at the Eastman home, and had been impressed with the intelligence and ambition of the young George Eastman.

Strong invested $5,000 and the Eastman Dry-Plate Co. was formed in January 1881. Strong at the age of 41 was president. George Eastman at 25 was treasurer. Strong would remain president until near the time of his death in 1919. Although Eastman was the founder and made most of the decisions, he spent most of his career in the more modest-sounding positions of treasurer and general manager.

By the end of 1881, the company had 16 employees and monthly sales of $4,000. Suddenly, there were customer complaints of fogged and darkened plates. Production was stopped, and creditors threatened foreclosure. Eastman, Strong, and their emulsion assistant traveled to England to investigate the gelatin supplier. They learned the source had been changed. Returning to the prior source solved the problem.

An ad from 1900 stresses the simplicity of the Brownie camera.

The mystery of why the gelatin source made a difference was solved many years later.

Further research determined that sulphur was an important stray variable for the preservation of the emulsion.

Gelatin for the emulsion was produced from cows. The original cows grazed on a sulphur-rich mustard. The later cows were lacking sulphur in their diet.

George Eastman would recall that during the faulty plate crisis he had felt a paralysis in every muscle. He borrowed $600 to reopen the factory, cut the price by 25 percent and finished 1882 with a $15,000 profit.

The next challenge was to replace the glass plates with a flexible backing that could be rolled onto a reel. This would eliminate the need to reload the camera for each picture. Many more experiments led to paper treated with castor oil and glycerin. After exposure, a negative of the image was produced by soaking it in a hot bath to dissolve the gelatin.

The continuous film on a roll was a major breakthrough, for which Eastman was awarded another patent. The next need was a camera. Eastman recruited William Walker, who had developed a pocket-size camera to be used with dry plates. Walker proceeded to design a camera that could hold and advance a roll of film. Developing the film still required skill and experience, so a film developing department was started.

The first camera, sold in 1888, looked like a small black shoebox. It cost $25 and came preloaded with film for 100 pictures. The user mailed the camera and $10 back to the company, which shipped back the pictures and the reloaded camera.

The trademark name Kodak was created the same year. George Eastman declared that it was the manifest destiny of his company to be the largest manufacturer of photographic materials in the world.

The first Kodak camera was fast and easy, but only the affluent could afford it. Eastman recognized the need for the continuous development of cameras for a variety of purposes and personal budgets. The photography entry market was expanded to virtually everyone in 1900 with the introduction of the Kodak Brownie camera that cost a dollar. It came with a 54-page photography instruction book, Camera Club membership, and eligibility to compete in photo contests.

After 60 years of photography by skilled professionals with bulky equipment, George Eastman had made it possible for anyone to take pictures. His slogan, "You push the button; we do the rest," defined a new age for information gathering and storage.

The rapidly growing company needed more space. In 1890, a 14-acre site was purchased. The professionally landscaped facility, with power plant, air-conditioned film factory, and testing lab, would become Kodak Park.

Eastman's transparent film on a roll would have another dramatic use that he had not anticipated. Thomas Edison was in his inventive prime, with an amazing 677 patents from 1875 to 1895. His phonograph and electric light bulb were followed by a patent on a kinetoscope, which projected a sequence of pictures from a rotating cylinder to give the appearance of motion.

Edison traveled to Paris in 1889 for a 50th-anniversary celebration of photography by Daguerre. When Edison returned, his associate, William Dickson, had successfully replaced the rotating drum with Kodak film on a reel. Edison proceeded to demonstrate a crude movie camera and projector.

In 1893, Edison built a studio and started the movie industry using Kodak film. It took George Eastman another 35 years to extend moviemaking to amateurs. Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Charles Lindbergh would be among his guests in 1928, when the Kodacolor home-movie system was announced.

The discovery of the X-ray by William Roentgen in 1895 led to an unexpected medical technology market. Photographic plates were introduced for imaging for broken bones and tumors. Cardboard-backed packets were made for dentistry.


Success brought litigation. Reverend Hannibal Goodwin of New Jersey had experimented and applied for a patent on transparent film in 1877. It was rejected as too broad. After Eastman's success, the Goodwin estate revived the matter. Eastman could have settled initially for $1 million, but he argued that the Goodwin patent was not valid because the film was not manufactured. Eastman lost. In 1913, the court ordered him to pay $5 million. He paid out of his own pocket so that his stockholders would not be liable for his misjudgment.

The Goodwin suit against Eastman over transparent film was remarkably similar to the Selden patent suit against Ford for the invention of the automobile. George Eastman and Henry Ford both responded by arguing the patents were not valid because the inventor had not produced a useful product. However, while Eastman lost, Ford triumphed. The judge in 1911 ruled the Selden patent was valid, but did not apply to the Otto engine-powered vehicles that Ford was making. (Selden actually did produce a car, but it had an Otto cycle engine, so his patent didn't even apply to his own vehicle.)

George Eastman had pronounced that it was the manifest destiny of his company to become the largest manufacturer of photographic materials in the world. This conflicted with the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890. A 1911 antitrust suit against what by then was the Eastman Kodak Co. led to a finding that it controlled 90 percent of the photo supply business.

The advent of World War I delayed the settlement. Eastman established a school of aerial photography for the U.S. War Department. The first class of 250 students learned how to take and interpret reconnaissance pictures. After the war, Eastman reviewed war contracts and returned profits to the government. President Warren Harding thanked Eastman for his voluntary return of war-related profits. The government softened its antitrust position. The matter was finally settled in 1921 with the sale of some property that Eastman considered to be obsolete.

The city of Rochester has a history of photography-related businesses. The optics and instrument company Bausch and Lomb, which had started making eyeglasses in 1850, entered the photo lens and shutter business. By 1900, George Eastman made Rochester the new photography capital of the world. The tradition would be further expanded by the Polaroid Corp., with instant development inside the camera, and Xerox Corp., in the pioneering of copying machines.

The Brownie camera made the potential photo market almost universal.

George Eastman never married and believed he should give away his rapidly growing fortune while he was still alive. The $100 million he gave away during his lifetime is worth $2 billion today. He made large contributions to the University of Rochester and to the Mechanics Institute, which became the Rochester Institute of Technology. He funded the Eastman School of Music, and medical, dental, and veterinary education. He read Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington and contributed generously to the newly established Tuskegee Institute, where Washington was the principal.

In 1912, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was a young school. It had a 50-acre site and needed funds for buildings. A Mr. Smith donated $2.5 million. Additional contributions by Mr. Smith totaled $20 million. In 1920, it was revealed that Mr. Smith was George Eastman. He explained that he had been impressed with the MIT graduates that he had hired.

George Eastman had a lifetime passion for travel. He undertook extended safaris in Africa in 1926 and 1928, returning with movies of the jungle animals.

Meanwhile, his health was deteriorating. "My work is done," he wrote on March 14, 1932, and took his own life. Always an enthusiastic hunter and fisherman, he shot himself in the heart with a Luger automatic.

George Eastman built a magnificent Colonial Revival Mansion on East Avenue in Rochester in 1905. It is a National Historic Landmark and is chartered by the State of New York as the International Museum of Photography and Film. It displays a rare collection of photographs, cameras, projectors, books, and motion pictures.

The George Eastman House museum and the City of Rochester are marking the 150th anniversary of Eastman's birth with a series of special events, including concerts, lectures, music, films, and special tours. What's more, in recognition of Eastman's contributions to the world at large, the ASME History and Heritage Committee has accepted the photographic technology collection in the Eastman House for its roster of Landmarks, Sites, and Collections.

Frank Wicks, a professor of mechanical engineering at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., is a frequent contributor to Mechanical Engineering magazine.