George Eastman was born in 1854 in Waterville, New York, the same year that his father, George Washington Eastman, established Eastman’s Commercial College in Rochester. In 1860, the family moved to Rochester, but two years later, George W. Eastman died suddenly. George Eastman left school at age 14 to support his mother, Maria Kilbourn Eastman, and two older sisters, Ellen and Kate. He worked at a local insurance company and then as a junior clerk for the Rochester Savings Bank.
When Eastman was 23, a coworker suggested that he buy a camera for an upcoming trip. Though he never took that trip, he became intrigued by photographic processes and equipment. Eastman sought to simplify and improve what he saw as clunky, expensive equipment. He spent three years in the kitchen experimenting with gelatin emulsions and had invented and patented a dry-plate coating machine by 1880.
In 1881, with the financial backing of Rochester businessman Henry Strong, Eastman formed the Eastman Dry Plate Company, which was later reincorporated as the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company in 1884 and as Eastman Kodak Company in 1892. Eastman built his business on four basic principles: a focus on the customer, mass production at low cost, worldwide distribution, and extensive advertising. He eventually realized “that what we were doing was not merely making dry plates, but that we were starting out to make photography an everyday affair…to make the camera as convenient as the pencil.”
The company created easy-to-use cameras that made photography widely accessible, established the practice of professional photofinishing, and developed a flexible film that was a critical contribution to the launch of the motion picture industry. Eastman had revolutionized how America thought about and used cameras. In the late 1920s, he was diagnosed with a progressive and irreversible spinal disease. He ended his life on March 14, 1932. In a note to friends, he wrote, “My work is done. Why wait?”
To learn more about George Eastman, visit:
Eastman Museum, https://eastman.org/about-george-eastman, Eastman Museum