Kodak is the American corporate photo giant whose film and imaging products are recognized worldwide. Headquartered in Rochester, New York, the Eastman Kodak Company (Kodak, for short) was incorporated in 1901 as the successor to the small dry-plate business founded in Rochester in 1880 by George Eastman (1854-1932). From its modest beginnings in a rented loft space, the original Eastman Dry Plate Company (which became the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company and then simply the Eastman Company) expanded rapidly, largely because of Eastman's inventive and marketing genius. By 1900, distribution outlets were established in France, Germany, Italy, and other European countries. By the end of the twentieth century, Kodak, one of industry's most readily identifiable trademarks, had operations in Canada, Mexico, Brazil, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Australia, and Kodak products were marketed by subsidiary companies to people in more than 150 countries.
An amateur photographer with little formal education, Eastman recognized the technological possibilities of the newly discovered dry plate method of photography, which, by substituting a dry coat of gelatin emulsion containing silver salts for the wet collodion then in use, allowed plates to be prepared well in advance and developed long after exposure. For three years Eastman worked as a bank clerk and experimented at night in his mother's kitchen. By 1880, having developed both a successful formula for creating gelatin emulsions and a patent for a machine to mass produce the pre-coated dry plates for sale to other photographers, he began commercial distribution. Devoted unconditionally to the quality of his product, he once recalled and replaced a batch of defective plates already in the hands of dealers. "Making good on those plates took our last dollar," he said; "but what we had was more important—reputation."
As manager of all phases of the new company's operations, Eastman—assisted by a full-time research scientist—continued pursuing ways to simplify the photographic process. One result was American film (1884), a three-layered strippable negative that eliminated the burdensome glass plate and became the forerunner of all modern film. By 1888, the Kodak camera, the first camera uncomplicated, affordable, and portable enough to be used by large numbers of amateur photographers, was introduced with the slogan "You Push the Button, We Do the Rest"; after use, the camera was mailed back to Rochester for film processing and reloading. The new camera also marked the initial appearance of "Kodak," a name coined by Eastman himself. Noting the "strength" and "incisiveness" of his favorite letter "K" (the first letter of his mother's maiden name, Kilbourn), Eastman had played with it in various combinations. The resulting word "Kodak," trademarked in 1888 and today one of the company's most valued assets, was, according to Eastman, "short" and "[in]capable of mispronunciation," and it would not be "associated with anything … except the Kodak [camera]."
Other photographic innovations followed, including the first commercial transparent roll film, which made possible Thomas Edison's developments in motion pictures; the pocket (1895) and folding pocket (1898) Kodak cameras, which are considered the ancestors of all modern roll-film cameras; and the inexpensive but revolutionary Brownie camera (1900), which sold for $1.00 plus 15 cents for film. Each time a new possibility for the photographic medium arose, Eastman seized the opportunity: for instance, he entered into an agreement to supply plates and paper for Wilhelm Roentgen's newly discovered x-ray process and produced the first film especially coated for motion pictures. (Today, over 90% of all motion pictures are shot on Kodak film.)
Yet Eastman was more than a brilliant inventor; he was also a remarkably shrewd and progressive businessman who followed four very modern principles: mass production, low product pricing, foreign and domestic distribution, and extensive advertising. So strong was Eastman's belief in the last principle that he promoted his company's products in the leading papers and periodicals of the day, often writing the ads himself. He inaugurated the use of the "Kodak Girl" to pitch his cameras; instructed his advertising department to embark on ambitious campaigns, like the installation of 6,000 road signs ("Picture this! Kodak as you go") on American highways in the early 1920s; linked the marketing of the Brownie to Palmer Cox's familiar cartoon characters; and tied in products to particular audiences and events—e.g., Boy Scout Brownie Cameras (1932), New York World's Fair Baby Brownies (1939), and Kodak Coquette Cameras, with matching lipstick holders and compacts (1930).
Believing that employees deserved more than just a good wage, Eastman implemented benefit, accident, and pension funds, as well as company reward programs, like the "Wage Dividend" program, in which workers benefitted above their wages in proportion to the yearly dividend on the company stock. Eastman's social philosophy also extended to his personal life: a noted philanthropist who often posed as "Mr. Smith," he contributed generously to educational and cultural institutions and to other charities, especially those that supported improved children's welfare. On one day alone in 1924, he gave $30 million to MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), from which he recruited some of his best scientists and engineers; the University of Rochester; the Hampton Institute; and the Tuskegee Institute. In 1932, moments after bequeathing the bulk of his estate to the University of Rochester, an ailing Eastman took his own life. His suicide note was simple and direct: "My work is done. Why wait?"
With the introduction of products such as Kodachrome color film (1935), cartridge-loaded Instamatic still and movie cameras (1960s), the disc camera series (first marketed in 1982), digital and single-use cameras, and with various advances in optics (established as a Kodak department as early as 1912) and imaging technologies, the company that George Eastman founded remains on the cutting edge of professional and amateur photography.
—Barbara Tepa Lupack
Ackerman, Carl W. George Eastman. Boston, Houghton-Mifflin, 1930.
Brayer, Elizabeth. George Eastman: A Biography. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.
Collins, Douglas. The Story of Kodak. New York, Harry N.Abrams, 1990.
"Kodak: Take Pictures. Further." http://www.kodak.com. April 1999.