He was a high school dropout, judged "not especially gifted" when measured against the academic standards of the day. He was poor, but even as a young man, he took it upon himself to support his widowed mother and two sisters, one of whom was severely handicapped.
He began his business career as a 14-year old office boy in an insurance company and followed that with work as a clerk in a local bank.
He was George Eastman, and his ability to overcome financial adversity, his gift for organization and management, and his lively and inventive mind made him a successful entrepreneur by his mid-twenties, and enabled him to direct his Eastman Kodak Company to the forefront of American industry.
But building a multinational corporation and emerging as one of the nation's most important industrialists required dedication and sacrifice. It did not come easily.
To learn more about Eastman and how he helped bring photography and images into our daily lives, read on and also watch this brief history of his life and Kodak's early years.
The youngest of three children, George Eastman was born to Maria Kilbourn and George Washington Eastman on July 12, 1854 in the village of Waterville, some 20 miles southwest of Utica, in upstate New York. The house on the old Eastman homestead, where his father was born and where George spent his early years, has since been moved to the Genesee Country Museum in Mumford, N.Y., outside of Rochester.
When George was five years old, his father moved the family to Rochester. There the elder Eastman devoted his energy to establishing Eastman Commercial College. Then tragedy struck. George's father died, the college failed and the family became financially distressed.
George continued school until he was 14. Then, forced by family circumstances, he had to find employment.
His first job, as a messenger boy with an insurance firm, paid $3 a week. A year later, he became office boy for another insurance firm. Through his own initiative, he soon took charge of policy filing and even wrote policies. His pay increased to $5 per week.
But, even with that increase, his income was not enough to meet family expenses. He studied accounting at home evenings to get a better paying job.
In 1874, after five years in the insurance business, he was hired as a junior clerk at the Rochester Savings Bank. His salary tripled -- to more than $15 a week.
Trials of an Amateur
When Eastman was 24, he made plans for a vacation to Santo Domingo. When a co-worker suggested he make a record of the trip, Eastman bought a photographic outfit with all the paraphernalia of the wet plate days.
The camera was as big as a microwave oven and needed a heavy tripod. And he carried a tent so that he could spread photographic emulsion on glass plates before exposing them, and develop the exposed plates before they dried out. There were chemicals, glass tanks, a heavy plate holder, and a jug of water. The complete outfit "was a pack-horse load," as he described it. Learning how to use it to take pictures cost $5.
Eastman did not make the Santo Domingo trip. But he did become completely absorbed in photography and sought to simplify the complicated process.
A self-portrait on
He read in British magazines that photographers were making their own gelatin emulsions. Plates coated with this emulsion remained sensitive after they were dry and could be exposed at leisure. Using a formula taken from one of these British journals, Eastman began making gelatin emulsions.
He worked at the bank during the day and experimented at home in his mother's kitchen at night. His mother said that some nights Eastman was so tired he couldn't undress, but slept on a blanket on the floor beside the kitchen stove.
After three years of photographic experiments, Eastman had a formula that worked. By 1880, he had not only invented a dry plate formula, but had patented a machine for preparing large numbers of the plates. He quickly recognized the possibilities of making dry plates for sale to other photographers.
Birth of a Company
In April 1880, Eastman leased the third floor of a building on State Street in Rochester, and began to manufacture dry plates for sale. One of his first purchases was a second-hand engine priced at $125.
"I really needed only a one horse-power," he later recalled. "This was a two horse-power, but I thought perhaps business would grow up to it. It was worth a chance, so I took it."
As his young company grew, it faced total collapse at least once when dry plates in the hands of dealers went bad. Eastman recalled them and replaced them with a good product. "Making good on those plates took our last dollar," he said. "But what we had left was more important -- reputation."
Eastman's first office was on
the third floor of this building
on State Street, in Rochester.
"The idea gradually dawned on me," he later said, "that what we were doing was not merely making dry plates, but that we were starting out to make photography an everyday affair." Or as he described it more succinctly "to make the camera as convenient as the pencil."
Eastman's experiments were directed to the use of a lighter and more flexible support than glass. His first approach was to coat the photographic emulsion on paper and then load the paper in a roll holder. The holder was used in view cameras in place of the holders for glass plates.
The first film advertisements in 1885 stated that "shortly there will be introduced a new sensitive film which it is believed will prove an economical and convenient substitute for glass dry plates both for outdoor and studio work."
This system of photography using roll holders was immediately successful. However, paper was not entirely satisfactory as a carrier for the emulsion because the grain of the paper was likely to be reproduced in the photo.
Eastman's 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 -- a cellulose solution that forms a tough, flexible film.
As he perfected transparent roll film and the roll holder, Eastman changed the whole direction of his work and established the base on which his success in amateur photography would be built.
He later said: "When we started out with our scheme of film photography, we expected that everybody who used glass plates would take up films. But we found that the number which did so was relatively small. In order to make a large business we would have to reach the general public."
Eastman's faith in the importance of advertising, both to the company and to the public, was unbounded. The very first Kodak products were advertised in leading papers and periodicals of the day -- with ads written by Eastman himself.
Eastman coined the slogan, "you press the button, we do the rest," when he introduced the Kodak camera in 1888 and within a year, it became a well-known phrase. Later, with advertising managers and agencies carrying out his ideas, magazines, newspapers, displays and billboards bore the Kodak banner.
Space was taken at world expositions, and the "Kodak Girl," with the style of her clothes and the camera she carried changing every year, smiled engagingly at photographers everywhere. In 1897, the word "Kodak" sparkled from an electric sign on London's Trafalgar Square -- one of the first such signs to be used in advertising.
An early ad featuring a slogan coined by Eastman.
The word "Kodak" was first registered as a trademark in 1888. 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 combinations of letters that made words starting and ending with 'K.' The word 'Kodak' is the result." Kodak's distinctive yellow trade dress, which Eastman selected, is widely known throughout the world and is one of the company's more valued assets.
Thanks to Eastman's inventive genius, anyone could now take pictures with a handheld camera simply by pressing a button. He made photographers of us all.
Benefiting the Employee
Beyond his inventive genius, Eastman blended human and democratic qualities, with remarkable foresight, into the building of his business. He believed employees should have more than just good wages -- a way of thinking that was far ahead of management people of his era.
Early in his business, Eastman began planning for "dividends on wages" for employees. His first act, in 1899, was the distribution of a substantial sum of his own money -- an outright gift -- to each person who worked for him.
Camera manufacturing in the 1890's.
Later he set up a "Wage Dividend," in which each employee benefited above his or her wages in proportion to the yearly dividend on the company stock. The Wage Dividend was an innovation, and represented a large part of the distribution of the company's net earnings.
Eastman felt that the prosperity of an organization was not necessarily due to inventions and patents, but more to workers' goodwill and loyalty, which in turn were enhanced by forms of profit sharing.
In 1919, Eastman gave one-third of his own holdings of company stock -- then worth $10 million -- to his employees. Still later came the fulfillment of what he felt was a responsibility to employees with the establishment of retirement annuity, life insurance, and disability benefit plans. With these benefits, and the Wage Dividend, employees could confidently look forward to a more secure future.
Carl W. Ackerman, a biographer, writing in 1932, said: "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."
Giving Away His Fortune
Eastman is almost as well known for his philanthropy as he is for his pioneering work in photography. In this field, as in others, he put the direction of an enthusiastic amateur to work.
He began giving to nonprofit institutions when his salary was $60 a week -- with a donation of $50 to the young and struggling Mechanics Institute of Rochester, now the Rochester Institute of Technology.
He was an admirer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology because he had hired some of its graduates, who had become his best assistants. This admiration, after thorough study, was translated into a handsome gift to M.I.T., eventually reaching $20 million. It was given anonymously from a "Mr. Smith," and for several years the identity of mysterious "Mr. Smith" was speculated about, even finding expression in a popular M.I.T. song.
Dental clinics were also of great interest to Eastman. He devised complete plans and financial backing for a $2.5 million dental clinic for Rochester. He then started a large-scale, remedial dental program for children. Dental clinics were also given to London, Paris, Rome, Brussels and Stockholm.
When asked why he favored dental clinics, he replied, "I get more results for my money than in any 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."
Eastman loved music and wanted others to enjoy the beauty and pleasure of music. He established and supported the Eastman School of Music, a theatre, and a symphony orchestra. "It is fairly easy to employ skillful musicians. It is impossible to buy appreciation of music. Yet without a large body of people who get joy out of it, any attempt to develop musical resources of any city is doomed to failure," he said. So his plan had a practical formula for exposing the public to music -- with the result that the people of Rochester have for decades supported their own philharmonic orchestra.
Interest in hospitals and dental clinics had grown with Eastman's work and study of the field. He promoted and brought to fruition a program to develop a medical school and hospital at the University of Rochester, which became as nationally prominent as the university's music school. Rochester is filled with Eastman landmarks that contribute to the enrichment of community life.
His sincere concern for the education of African Americans brought gifts to the Hampton and the Tuskegee Institutes. One day in 1924, Eastman signed away $30 million to the University of Rochester, M.I.T., Hampton and Tuskegee. As he laid down the pen he said, "Now I feel better."
In explaining these large gifts, he said, "The progress of the world depends almost entirely upon education. I selected a limited number of recipients because I wanted to cover certain kinds of education, and felt I could get results with those named quicker and more directly than if the money were spread."
Eastman often made the beneficiary match his gift in some way, so the institution would have the confidence of standing on its own. For him, great wealth brought the greater opportunity to serve.
Eastman was reticent and shunned publicity. It seems paradoxical that the man whose name is synonymous with photography should have fewer photographs taken of him than many other outstanding leaders of his time. He could walk down the main street of Rochester without being recognized.
Eastman lived his philosophy, "What we do during our working hours determines what we have; what we do in our leisure hours determines what we are." A tough competitor, hard-bitten and practical in business, he was gentle and congenial at home or in the field of outdoor enjoyment.
George Eastman relaxing in his library.
In his yearly visits to Europe, he toured the art galleries methodically -- even cycling from place to place. By the time he could afford masterpieces, he had learned enough to say, "I never buy a painting until I have lived with it in my home." The result: his home became the showplace of one of the finest private collections of paintings.
The Vision of a Pioneer
He was a modest, unassuming man... an inventor, a marketer, a global visionary, a philanthropist, and a champion of inclusion.
Eastman died by his own hand on March 14, 1932 at the age of 77. Plagued by progressive disability resulting from a hardening of the cells in the lower spinal cord, Eastman became increasingly frustrated at his inability to maintain an active life, and set about putting his estate in order.
"Eastman was a stupendous factor in the education of the modern world," said an editorial in the New York Times following his death. "Of what he got in return for his great gifts to the human race he gave generously for their good; fostering music, endowing learning, supporting science in its researches and teaching, seeking to promote health and lessen human ills, helping the lowliest in their struggle toward the light, making his own city a center of the arts and glorifying his own country in the eyes of the world."