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 had polio.
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.
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.
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 1879, London was the center of the photographic and business world. George Eastman went there to obtain a patent on his plate-coating machine. An American patent was granted the following year.
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."
Success of the dry plate venture so impressed businessman Henry A. Strong, that he invested some money in the infant concern.
On January 1, 1881, Eastman and Strong formed a partnership called the Eastman Dry Plate Company. Late that year, Eastman resigned from his position at the Rochester Savings Bank to devote all his time to the new company and its business. While actively managing all phases of the firm's activities, he continued research in an effort to simplify photography.
In 1884, the Eastman-Strong partnership had given way to a new firm -- the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company -- with 14 shareowners. A successive concern -- the Eastman Company, was formed in 1889.
The company has been called Eastman Kodak Company since 1892, when Eastman Kodak Company of New York was organized. In 1901, the Eastman Kodak Company of New Jersey was formed under the laws of that state.
Eastman built his business on four basic principles:
- a focus on the customer
- mass production at low cost
- worldwide distribution
- extensive advertising
He saw all four as being closely related. Mass production could not be justified without wide distribution. Distribution, in turn, needed the support of strong advertising. From the beginning, he imbued the company with the conviction that fulfilling customer needs and desires is the only road to corporate success.
As Eastman’s 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."
"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.
In 1883, Eastman startled the trade with the announcement of film in rolls, with the roll holder adaptable to nearly every plate Camera on the market.
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."
With the KODAK Camera in 1888, Eastman put down the foundation for making photography available to everyone. Pre-loaded with enough film for 100 exposures, the camera could be easily carried and handheld during operation. It was priced at $25. After exposure, the whole camera was returned to Rochester. There the film was developed, prints were made and new film was inserted -- all for $10.
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 introduced the Kodak camera in 1888. Thanks to his inventive genius, anyone could now take pictures with a handheld camera simply by pressing a button. He coined the slogan, "you press the button, we do the rest," 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.
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." Eastman also selected Kodak's distinctive yellow trade dress, which is widely known throughout the world.
A Principled Leader
To his basic principles of business, Eastman added these policies:
- foster growth and development through continuing research
- reinvest profits to build and extend the business, and
- treat employees in a fair, self-respecting way
In regards to his employees and in building his business, Eastman blended human and democratic qualities, with remarkable foresight. 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
Later he set up a "Wage Dividend" – an innovation for its time – in which each employee benefited above his or her wages in proportion to the yearly dividend on the company stock.
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.
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 the mysterious "Mr. Smith" was speculated about, even finding expression in a popular M.I.T. song.
"If a man has wealth, he has to make a choice, because there is the money heaping up. He can keep it together in a bunch, and then leave it for others to administer after he is dead. Or he can get it into action and have fun, while he is still alive. I prefer getting it into action and adapting it to human needs, and making the plan work."
- George Eastman
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.
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."
George Eastman Museum
Learn More about Kodak, photography, and the legacy of George Eastman by visiting the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, N.Y.