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Friday, October 30, 2015

George Eastman: Genius of Invention and Enterprise

Real Heroes: George Eastman

In 2015, a new world record will likely be set: humans will record fleeting moments of their lives at least one trillion times over the course of the year. That’s how many photos we’ll snap, up from 810 billion in 2014, according to InfoTrends’ Worldwide Image Capture Forecast. About three-quarters of them will be taken with smartphones, which didn’t even exist a couple of decades ago.

Giants in the field of photography have enriched our lives far beyond the imaginations of the first few generations of Americans. While the first photographic process — called daguerreotype — was introduced commercially in 1839, decades of innovation and investment followed before picture taking was inexpensive enough to make it a national pastime. More than anyone else, the man behind that investment was George Eastman.

It was 115 years ago, in February 1900, when Eastman introduced the Kodak “Brownie” box camera. The price tag was one dollar; film sold for 15 cents a roll. Eastman was about to do for cameras what Steve Jobs would do for computers almost eight decades later: put exciting new technology within the reach of almost every American family.

The camera and camera phone are tributes to the spontaneous order of a relatively free, entrepreneurial marketplace, unplanned by politicians or bureaucrats. 

Whether you’re a camera buff or not, you probably have seen and perhaps have even used a Brownie. Nowadays, they show up at rummage sales and antique shows, but I can remember when they were still widely used in my childhood days during the 1950s. They were simple to operate and took great pictures. Using size 616 or 620 Kodak film, I would snap a roll of fewer than 20 photos, reel them back onto the original spool, remove the spool from the camera, and give it to my father. He would drop it off at the camera store on his way to work. A full week of anxious waiting later, my photos would be ready for pickup.

The Brownie not only ushered in the era of modern photography; it was also a genuine cultural phenomenon. Millions were sold. Thousands of American youngsters signed up as members of the Brownie Camera Club and entered Kodak photo contests. Men and women who went on to become famous photographers got their start with Eastman’s invention.

The man who gave us the Brownie camera was no stranger to photography. In the 1870s, when Eastman was in his twenties and picture taking wasn’t much older, what would become the passion of his life started out as a hobby. In 1871 at the age of 17, he bought almost a hundred dollars’ worth of photographic equipment and hired a photographer to instruct him in the art. He read everything he could find on the subject, and with a backpack and a wheelbarrow, he hauled his equipment everywhere he wanted to capture an image.

Cameras in the 1870s were as big as microwave ovens are now. The tools of the professional photographer’s trade — including a bulky, unreliable camera, a tripod, and various liquid chemicals — were more than a single man could carry, “a pack-horse load,” as Eastman described it. He resolved to downsize, simplify, and reduce the cost of the “burden” of taking pictures.

Though he lived his entire life in upstate New York, Eastman traveled widely. He once visited Michigan’s Mackinac Island, where he set up his camera equipment to take photos of a famous stone landmark. A crowd of gawking tourists gathered, assuming Eastman would take their pictures and offer the photos for sale. When he informed them he was making pictures for his own purposes and not for sale, a disappointed tourist chewed him out: “Then why did you let us stand in the hot sun for a full half-hour while you fooled around with your contraptions! You ought to wear a sign saying that you are an amateur!”

Eastman experimented endlessly and discovered new techniques and processes for producing better film and lighter, less expensive cameras. A self-taught chemist, he ended the era of sloppy, wet-plate photography by inventing a process that used dry chemicals, though not without many disappointments along the way. His Eastman Dry Plate Company almost went bankrupt in the 1880s, in spite of his hard work and sleepless nights. But in America’s golden age of invention — when taxes were low, rewards for persistence were often great, and government largely left creative people alone — this genius who had dropped out of school at age 13 went on to build an extraordinarily successful business.

Professional photographers praised Eastman’s pioneering work. They called his prints and negatives “the best dry plate work on the market.” Journals and newspapers began publishing articles about each Eastman invention and eagerly awaited the next one.

By 1888, Eastman had simplified the camera into a small, easily held box measuring three and three-quarter inches high, three and a quarter inches wide, and six and a half inches long. He needed a name for it, a catchy trademark that could be easily pronounced and spelled. “K” was his favorite letter because, he said, it was “a strong, incisive sort of letter.” After toying with various combinations of letters, he hit on one that rang some sort of bell in his mind: “Kodak.”

But the first Kodak camera, priced at $25 when it debuted in 1888, was still unaffordable for most Americans.

In 1892, Eastman founded the Eastman Kodak Company, in Rochester, New York, the first company to mass produce standardized photography equipment. It also manufactured the flexible transparent film, devised by Eastman in 1889, which proved indispensable to the development of the motion picture industry.

Eastman and his team of expert craftsmen worked feverishly to cut costs and improve quality. The result was a camera — the Kodak Brownie — that would reach people, in Eastman’s words, “the same way the bicycle has reached them.”

It took the world by storm. The first run of 5,000 cameras flew off the shelves, and orders piled up at an amazing pace that exceeded the most optimistic projections. Even corner drugstores were selling them.

A new term was coined during a 1905 court trial to describe the millions of people caught up in the craze: “Kodak freaks.” In her biography of George Eastman, Elizabeth Brayer quotes the court transcript, which read, “Wherever they go, and whomever they see, and whatever place they have come to, they have got to have a Kodak along for the purpose of getting pictures.” In 1904, reports Brayer, when the Dalai Lama fled from his Tibetan palace, he took his Brownie with him.

Eastman inspired great loyalty among his employees, in large measure because of what biographer Brayer notes were “his countless acts of kindness, his enlightened personnel policies, and his tireless working habits.” He was an American original — a self-made man whose dreams and commitment have made happier the everyday lives of generations of people by allowing moments of those lives to be captured on film.

In 1929, when Eastman met Thomas Edison for the first time, each of the elderly men revealed they had purchased a product made by the other as early as the 1880s. “Pretty good film,” Edison told Eastman.

The estimated one trillion pictures people around the world will take this year are the direct descendants of the Kodak Brownie, the first mass-produced camera in history. Its creator was a superb businessman as well as a talented inventor who became one of America’s wealthiest citizens.

Philanthropy was one of Eastman’s passions. In 1901, he gave the equivalent in today’s dollars of nearly 20 million to what is now the Rochester Institute of Technology. Thanks to millions more that he gave to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT opened a new campus in 1916.

Eastman’s giving was a huge financial help to some historically black colleges in the South, including Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute. He gave away, usually without fanfare, more than $100 million to universities and charities during his lifetime.

Of course, what he gave away didn’t make him a hero. That was the easy part. He had to earn it first by serving the countless billions of eager consumers who benefited from his vision and abilities over the decades.

No central planner could have foreseen what Eastman achieved in his time, or what his successors have since achieved in ours. 

Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone appeared 24 years before George Eastman’s inexpensive cameras, but the two technologies were married in 1996 in Japan when the first camera phone went on sale. It boasted a resolution of a mere 0.1 megapixels — nothing compared to the 40 or 50 times that of the average smartphone now.

In 2015, the number of cell phones in the world exceeded the earth’s population for the first time, and about half of those phones have built-in cameras. They are easily one of the fastest-growing consumer technology marvels in history. From a price as high as $400 just 20 years ago, the much-improved smartphones of today cost a fraction of that price — and sometimes are even “free” with a service plan.

No central planner could have foreseen what Eastman achieved in his time, or what his successors have since achieved in ours. The camera and camera phone are tributes to the spontaneous order of a relatively free, entrepreneurial marketplace, unplanned by politicians or bureaucrats. They didn’t require a government venture capital fund, taxpayer-funded subsidies, or job-training grants — only an environment of low taxes, minimal regulation, and freewheeling risk taking by inventors and marketers.

Wealthy citizens played key roles in this story. Not only were they the prime sources of capital to get inventions like cameras and phones off the ground; they were the only ones who could afford to buy the early versions. Those purchases helped cover the initial high costs and enormous risks.

The same is true for almost every other invention. Wealthy people bought the first cameras when they sold for hundreds of 19th-century dollars, helping to provide the income and the capital for people like George Eastman to figure out how to cut their price to a comparative pittance.

I’m thankful these benefactors of humanity never had to pay the 90 percent marginal income tax rate that some would like to reimpose today.

Eastman’s final two years were arduous and painful. Suffering from a degenerative spinal condition, he found it increasingly difficult to stand or walk. On March 14, 1932, at age 77, he took his own life by way of a single gunshot to the heart. He left a note that read, “To my friends, my work is done. Why wait? — GE.”

Successful geniuses of capital and enterprise like George Eastman are viewed with disdain by many in our midst. These critics are the losers, the envious, the demagogues, the class warriors, the power lusters, the people who are more eager to steal and redistribute what others create than to bake a bigger or better pie themselves. The Eastmans of the world, however, will go on bequeathing great gifts to humanity while their detractors, with a little luck, will be forgotten.

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  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is