The building will likely stay for decades longer, but after 125 years, Kodak's out of the camera manufacturing business (and out of the 'Rochester, NY' business!).
Monday, February 13, 2012 Rochester, NY - In 1826, Frenchman Joseph Niépce snapped the first ever photograph, a shot of a pigeon house, taken from his Paris apartment window. And Niépce certainly doesn't deserve all the credit for the invention of photography. There were other of Niépce's countrymen; for instance, Louis DaGuerre, with whom Niépce formed a partnership in 1829.
Americans such as John Locke, Samuel Morse (yes, the inventor the telegraph), and but of course, George Eastman, all played a pivotal role in advancing what is easily one of the greatest inventions in world history.
But more than virtually any inventor associated with photography, it was Eastman who single-handedly transformed photography from a heavy, cumbersome, wet plate process, into the gelatin emulsion dry plate form that was responsible for Rochester's second economic boom.
Eastman's early years. George Eastman came into this world in July, 1854. Yet he was not born in Rochester, but in Waterville, NY, about 20 miles southwest of Utica. In fact, the home Eastman and his family occupied in Waterville was moved some years ago to its present location, the Genesee Country Museum & Village, in Mumford.
When Eastman was five years old, he and his family moved to Rochester. The elder Eastman founded a small college, the Eastman Commercial College, in his newly adopted home town. But not long after, George Eastman's father died prematurely, and soon after, the Eastman Commercial College would suffer a similar fate. And so by the age of 14, the younger Eastman was forced to quit school, so that he could help support his two sisters and widowed mother, and took a job as a messenger boy for an insurance firm, earning $3 a week.
By 1874, Eastman was studying accounting at home, while working at the Rochester Savings Bank as a junior clerk, for $15 a week. And though busy trying to financially fill the gap left by his father's absence, Eastman wasn't so busy that he could not find time for his favorite 'hobby': Photography.
George Eastman, now a man in his early 20's, like most young men, dreamed of exploring the world. He decided to save enough money to visit Santo Domingo. But he was not a sun worshiper: Eastman decided to bring along photographic equipment. However, this would present a problem.
In those days, a camera was the size of a microwave oven. So Eastman's curious mind got the best of him, and soon Santo Domingo didn't seem all that important. A new priority had emerged: How to make not only the camera smaller and easier to use, but to simplify the wet plate process.
While we Rochesterians would love to believe that George Eastman thought up, all by himself, the dry plate process for developing film, it is not so. Eastman, like any good inventor, looked to others to begin the mental process of trying to perfect something that may already exist. Eastman knew that some British photographers were creating, on their own, and only for themselves, a hybrid gelatin emulsion photographic process, that got around the problems of the wet plate process.
Eastman quickly forgot all about Santo Domingo, and would spend night and day perched over and next to the kitchen sink, experimenting with his own gelatin emulsion. Eastman's mother would later report that her son George would sometimes fall asleep, curled up in a ball on the kitchen floor, taking much needed naps between endless bouts with scientific experimentation.
1880. Eastman was now 26, and ready to strike out on his own. In 1880, Eastman built a machine that could, in a limited sense, mass produce dry plate paper film, and he secured a patent on his new machine. He leased a third floor office in a building on State Street, downtown.
Early on, by 1885, Eastman had learned the value in advertising his new, revolutionary photographic paper. Eastman even wrote much of the ad copy that appeared in the periodicals of the time. But George Eastman knew that he would have limited success in the world of business if he did not develop the next logical product to accompany his mass produced dry plate paper film.
In 1888, Eastman was ready to go to market with his first Kodak camera. He invented the slogan, "You press the button, we do the rest." It caught on. By 1897, a large 'electric sign' graced London's Trafalgar Square, advertising "Kodak," virtually the first sign of its kind, anywhere.
Much speculation and rumor has surrounded the invention of the word, 'Kodak'. Despite varying theories, Eastman once admitted it was made up "out of thin air". Eastman confided in an interview that he had always liked the letter "K". He felt it to be a strong letter, with a powerful sound. He therefore began to dream up variations of a name for his camera and company, with "K" as the first and last letter. He decided the name of his company and camera must be made up of few letters, and easy for most people to pronounce. Thus was born "Kodak". Eastman also came up with the color scheme of red and yellow.
What Kodak has meant to Rochester, and to the World. Lest we forget, there would be no Kodak without George Eastman. This may seem a very obvious statement, but Eastman Kodak would be no ordinary enterprise. George Eastman was perhaps the first industrialist, anywhere, ever, who treated his workers with loyalty and respect.
And he demanded the same attitude from his employees. The fact is, George Eastman once said that the success of a company depended less on inventions and patents than it did on worker happiness, and securing their loyalty. Thus, Eastman invented something he called the "Wage Dividend". This represented the very beginning of what other companies and trade unions would not accept until decades later. It was a way of allowing the loyal, hard working Kodak employee to build a retirement, and in the near term, it provided the means for the employee to adequately take care of his or her family. The first notion of what would become the wage dividend dates back to 1899.
George Eastman initially created employee financial stability by funding the wage dividend from his own pocket. Later, the company was strong enough that Eastman could use 'profit sharing' to fund employee dividends. Eastman was a very generous man, not just posthumously, but in his own life time.
He anonymously gave M.I.T. $20 million, under the name "Mr. Smith". He also gave a large financial boost to what would become the Rochester Institute of Technology. Eastman believed deeply in dental and oral health. Therefore, he helped fund dental schools and clinics not only in his hometown of Rochester, but in distant cities such as Paris, London, Rome, and Stockholm, Sweden.
He founded the Eastman School of Music, the theater that would bear his name, and a symphony orchestra. He also had a genuine concern for the plight of African Americans. He one day sat down with pen and paper, and gave part of a $30 million gift (unimaginable in those days) to the Tuskegee Institute, founded by Booker T. Washington. Upon signing away part of his fortune that day, observers reported that he signed the document, dropped his pen, and said, "Now I feel better".
His legacy. Eastman was a true philanthropist, of the highest moral order. None of his magnitude preceded him, and few have since.
George Eastman was not only a genius inventor, but truly cared about not only his family and employees, but about people he would never meet. He not only changed Rochester forever, but in his own, not-so-small way, helped change the world.
George Eastman taught other industrialists, by the power of his own example, how to not only make a lot of money, but how to put much of that money to good work.
Rochester will survive without Kodak, mainly because so many, still, to this day, carry on the tradition of his benevolence. Rochester is known throughout North America as a "giving city".
We have not only ourselves to thank for this much deserved reputation, but we can look back to the amazing legacy of one George Eastman, who 'made photographers out of all of us', and in a certain way, taught later generations how to 'give back' to their community.
I suppose George Eastman was the living embodiment of the old saying, 'You can't take it with you'.
-Christopher J. Wilmot, Pittsford, NY
Speak Out on Eastman's Legacy
If you'd like to share your opinion on this article, please log in in and enter your comments in the "What's your opinion?" box. Underneath your opinion, provide your first and last name and the city and state in which you live. We will only print opinions that include this information. If you're not a member yet, Register Here. It's FREE and easy.
Click here to get email updates!