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George Eastman and Kodak

October 14, 2003

A public radio commentary

When I was ten years old my mother gave me an old Kodak Brownie camera. I was disappointed because it looked like a box with a hole in it. I didn't realize how this simple box revolutionized photography; that it changed the way American families think of themselves and recall their own histories.

The Brownie camera was the brainchild of George Eastman. In 1871 this seventeen year old bank clerk took up photography. It wasn't a simple thing in those days, in Eastman's own words it took "a pack-horse" load of equipment - including a sink because making photos was messy work. It involved coating glass plates with egg whites. His first step was to get rid of the sink, to make the process dry. Eastman worked in his mother's kitchen to make dry plates, even boiling his chemicals in her tea pot. He went into business as the Eastman Dry Plate Company. Eastman felt he could make big money from his plates, but only if there existed a small, simple camera to use them. This started him on a twenty year quest.

His first camera, in 1885, introduced a key feature: A roll of film. Eastman took the coating from his dry glass plates and transferred it to flexible paper. Although it was now convenient to take pictures, it cost forty-five dollars for the camera - an exorbitant price in 1885.

Over the next three years, Eastman improved his camera, but it still cost twenty-five dollars - again too much, although it carried, for the first time, one of the greatest trademark names ever.

To name the camera Eastman looked for a simple word that could be pronounced in every language. Eastman's favorite letter was "K" - he said it was "strong, incisive", "firm and unyielding." From this feeling he conjured up "Kodak." With profits from these cameras Eastman spent ten more years perfecting his ultimate camera - the Brownie. It sold for one dollar plus fifteen cents for film.

In its first year - 1900 - five thousand of them flew off the shelves, spreading across the globe. In 1904, for example, when the Dali Lama came down from his Tibetan capital for the first time, he brought with him his Kodak camera. In spite of the success of the Brownie, Eastman continued creating new cameras until he got a painful spinal condition that made him inactive. Always the man of action Eastman made a plan.

He tidied up his will, then asked his doctor to show him exactly where his heart was. In 1932 George Eastman shot himself through his heart, leaving behind a yellow-lined piece of paper with the words: "To my friends, my work is done. Why wait?" And what work that was.

This year alone Americans will take seventy billion photos - not simply photographs, but memories to be shared for years -- all started by George Eastman and his brownie camera.

Copyright 2003 William S. Hammack Enterprises