George Eastman

George Eastman


Inductee Sponsor: Eastman Kodak Company


Doesn’t it seem as if most great stories of successful men and women begin with, “they were poor and not especially bright”? George Eastman is no exception. He was born to Maria Kilbourn and George Washington Eastman on July 12, 1854 in the Waterville village in upstate New York. The young Eastman was five years old when his father sold his nursery business and moved the family to Rochester to establish Eastman Commercial College. After his father died the college went bankrupt.

At the age of 14, Eastman had to drop out of high school to help support his family.His first job was with an insurance company as a messenger boy. He was paid $3 a week. Transferring to another insurance firm a year later as an office boy, he took the initiative to file and even write some policies. Soon, his pay was increased to $5 a week. However, Eastman was forced to study accounting in the evenings because the household expenses were not being met. In 1874 he was hired at the Rochester Savings Bank as a junior clerk. He was now making $15 a week.

1874 marked another change in Eastman’s life. He was making travel plans to Santo Domingo when co-worker suggested that Eastman record his trip with a “photographic outfit”. Although he did not make the trip, he bought the “outfit” and described it as “a pack-horse load” because the camera was huge and needed a heavy tripod. If he would have made the trip, he would have had to carry a tent to spread the photographic emulsion on glass plates before exposing them and then develop the plates before they dried out! Eastman would have also had to carry chemicals, glass tanks, plate holders and a jug of water. After buying the photography equipment, he became obsessed with how to make photography easier.

Wet plates were difficult and definitely not the key to making photography easier. British magazines led Eastman to find a formula based on photographers who were experimenting with dry emulsion, which meant the emulsion remained sensitive after the plates were dry and could be exposed at leisure. He believed this to be the answer, but had to experiment with his own formula. Because Eastman could not give up his job at the bank he would often work through the night in his mother’s kitchen. Some nights Eastman was so tired he couldn’t undress, but slept on a blanket on the floor beside the kitchen stove.

Thanks to Eastman’s inventive genius, anyone could take pictures with a handheld camera simply by pressing a button. He made photographers of us all.


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His dedication soon found Eastman with an invention and patent of a dry plate formula and the machine for preparing a large number of dry plates. In 1880, he leased the third floor of a building on State Street in Rochester and began manufacturing dry plates for sale. The idea gradually dawned on me that what we were doing was not merely making dry plates, but that we were starting out to make photography an everyday affair·to make the camera as convenient as the pencil. Thus the direction of the company was inevitable. East began experiments on the use of a lighter more flexible support than glass. His first approach was to coat the formula on paper. He would then load the paper in a roll holder. The holder was used in view cameras in place of the holders for glass plates. Advertisements for Eastman’s first film began in 1885 stating, shortly there will be introduced a new sensitive film which is believed will prove an economical and convenient substitute for glass dry plates both for outdoor and studio work.”

Although immediately successful, Eastman found a problem with the paper grain introducing flaws into the image. However, his solution was to coat the paper with a layer of plain, soluble gelatin and then with a layer of insoluble light sensitive gelatin. After exposure and development, the gelatin bearing the image was stripped from the paper, transferred to a sheet of clear gelatin and varnished with collodion. Problems created solutions of a better and more convenient product. Perfecting the film and camera Eastman was responsible for changing the direction of photography and making it available to all professionals and amateur photographers alike.

In 1888 Eastman introduced the you push the button, we do the rest advertising campaign. It was the Kodak camera with film already loaded. After all the pictures were taken you would send the entire camera back to the company for film processing. It was also 1888 that Eastman named his company Kodak. There has been some fanciful speculation, from time to time, on how the name was originated. But the plain truth is that Eastman invented it out of thin air. He explained, I devised the name myself. The letter “K” had been a favorite with me it seems a strong, incisive sort of letter. It became a question of trying out a great number of combination of letters that made words starting and ending with “K”. The word Kodak is the result.

The company is not only successful because of the products but because Eastman insisted on making his employees happy. Early on Eastman planned for dividends on wages and in 1899 he gave a gift of money to all of his employees. Later, each employee was able to purchase stock and on a yearly basis the employee would receive benefits from the stock. In 1919, Eastman gave one-third of his own holdings to his employees. It amounted to about $10 million dollars. He was also a pioneer in giving employees insurance and disability benefits. Mr. Eastman was a giant in his day. The social philosophy, which he practiced in building his company, was not only far in advance of the thinking during his lifetime, but it will be years before it is generally recognized and accepted. And to add to this, Eastman did just as much for his employees as he did for the community.

Even when his wages were only $60 a week he began giving to nonprofit organizations. He made a $50 donation to the young and struggling Mechanics Institute of Rochester, which is now the Rochester Institute of Technology. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology received a large gift from Eastman because he admired the school that was producing many of his best assistants at the Kodak Company. Believe it or not, many dental clinics were the recipients of large sums of the Kodak fortune! I get more results for my money than in other philanthropic scheme. It is a medical fact that children can have a better chance in life with better looks, better health and more vigor if the teeth, nose, throat and mouth are taken proper care of at the crucial time of childhood. The now famous medical school at the University of Rochester is just another result of Eastman’s giving. His concern for the education of African Americans prompted him to give to the Hampton and Tuskegee Institutes. Finally, a love of music led to the Eastman School of Music, a theater and a symphony orchestra. Not only did he love music, but flowers, art and outdoor life.

What we do during our working hours determines what we have; what we do in our leisure hours determines what we are. Eastman spent many hours at his simple hunting lodge in North Carolina. He made numerous hunting and fishing trips there. It is also known that he was an excellent cook, creating many recipes. His home became a showplace of his fine art collection that was acquired through many visits to Europe.

He was a modest, unassuming man—an inventor, a technologist, an organizer, an executive with a vision, a patriotic citizen and a philanthropist. On March 14, 1932 Eastman died by his own hand. Because he was such an active, vibrant man he was frustrated with a progressing disability of hardening of the cells in the lower spinal cord. George Eastman was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum in 1968 for revolutionizing photography.