Today in 1932, George Eastman died at the age of 77. His name is the “Eastman” in “Eastman Kodak”, the company that, more than any other in the world, brought photography to the masses during the last decades of the nineteenth century. Eastman’s story is one of poor boy made good, hard work rewarded with wealth and selflessness rewarded with immortality.
George Eastman was born in 1854 in Waterville, New York. His father ran a nursery business on the family land, but sold it when George was five in order to start his own school, the Eastman Commercial College. The senior Eastman died when George was 14, leaving the young man as the only bread winner for his mother and two sisters. He dropped out of school, never to return.
Eastman got his start as a messenger boy for a local insurance company and eventually ended up writing policies. Still not making enough money, he studied accounting at night and, five years later, was hired at a Rochester bank as a clerk. His hard work was paying dividends, but the real fruits of his labor were yet to come.
When Eastman was 24, he purchased the equipment necessary to take photographs and planned a vacation to Santo Domingo. He never made the trip, but he fell in love with photography. The problem with his new hobby was the weight and bulk of the equipment; it was no exaggeration to say that a pack mule was needed to carry everything a traveling photographer needed in the late 1870’s. Eastman read of advances being made in England with dry plates, which led him to start his own business preparing dry plates for sale to photographers in bulk.
It was during this time in the early 1880’s that Eastman began to focus on the task of making photography available to the masses. He invented roll film which replaced the rigid plate with a roll of cellulose-like material. It was easier and lighter to transport and made it possible to make cameras smaller than they had ever been. The race was on to make, in his words, “the camera as convenient as the pencil.”
And so the Kodak camera was born in 1888. The word ‘Kodak’ had no meaning other than as a brand name. Eastman liked the letter ‘K’, so he made up a word that started and ended with the letter. He also came up with the first slogan for the product “you press the button, we do the rest”---since early Kodaks were sent back to the factory for the film to be developed and the camera to be reloaded.
Eastman became famous for the generosity he showed his employees and the world. He set up a ‘Wage Dividend’ in his factories, which was a bonus paid to each employee yearly based on the company’s financial gains that year. In 1919, he gave one-third of his holdings in the company to his employees.
During his lifetime, it is estimated that Eastman gave away more than $100 million. He gave $20 million of that to MIT under the name ‘Mr. Smith’---it took years to find out who ‘Mr. Smith’ really was. Eastman gave the money to the school because he had hired some young men from MIT and he felt that they were his best assistants.
During the last two years of his life, Eastman was in great pain from spinal stenosis, although that diagnosis was unknown in the 1930’s. Knowing that he would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair and refusing to do so, he ended his own life on March 14, 1932 by firing a single bullet into his chest. The note he left simply said, “My work is done. Why wait?”