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George Eastman and Kodak

February 21, 2012

My wife has a Kodak EasyShare C875 camera, a gift from her students many years ago. It was her first digital camera, it still takes excellent photographs, and it works with our Linux operating system computers using gThumb. I presently use this camera more than she, and some images on this web site were taken with that camera.

Eastman Kodak, which has been a photography company since 1889, announced its departure from the camera business on February 9, 2012, about a month after filing a Chapter 11 reorganization to avoid liquidation.[1-2] Kodak's problem, as my colleagues and I discussed more than a decade ago, was that it was a chemical company, and photography was transforming from a chemical process to consumer electronics. The electronics companies had an advantage that Kodak could not overcome.

Kodak Brownie camera, c. 1945

Kodak Brownie Camera.

My parents owned one of these. Various Brownie models were sold in the 1940s and 1050s. Some of my baby pictures were taken with one of these.

How quickly they grow!

(Photograph by John Kratz, via Wikimedia Commons)

Photography was invented in 1826 by the Frenchman, Nicéphore Niépce, whose process was more akin to photolithography than silver-halide photography as practiced in the twentieth century. In his process, a pewter plate was coated with a bitumen material which hardened through exposure to light.

When the unexposed bitumen was washed away with solvents, what remained were the light pewter regions protected by the bitumen, and the bare, tarnished regions, thus rendering a positive image. Niépce also experimented with silver nitrate, which was known to darken upon light exposure.

The turning point that brought photography to the masses was George Eastman's 1884 invention of a roll film that would adequately replace photographic plates. Eastman had significant experience with photographic plates prior to his roll film invention. As for the name, Kodak, it's been explained that Eastman liked the sound of the letter, K. He experimented with words that included K, and found one that began and ended with a K.

Figure 1 of US Patent No. 388,850, by George Eastman, September 4, 1888

Figure 1 of US Patent No. 388,850, by George Eastman, September 4, 1888.

(via Google Patents). [4)]

George Eastman was born on July 12, 1854, in Waterville, New York, which is a very short distance from my childhood home of Utica, New York. When you travel on State Route 12, south from Utica through Waterville, you'll see a roadside marker that identifies Waterville as his birthplace.

For those of us who are accustomed to plastic film negatives, usually made of cellulose acetate or polyester, it's surprising to learn that Eastman's original photographic film was an emulsion on a paper roll. The emulsion was transferred to a glass plate as a step in the printing process.

Of course, most of us are familiar with the infamous celluloid (nitrocellulose), a plastic used in early motion picture reels, much to the detriment of archivists. Surprisingly, celluloid remained the film stock of choice for motion pictures well into the twentieth century, although Kodak introduced cellulose acetate film stock in 1908. Cellulose acetate was also known as "safety film," for obvious reasons.

George Eastman on a 1954 US Postage Stamp

An example of irony.

The master of photography rendered in an etching.

George Eastman on a 1954 US Postage Stamp.

(Via Wikimedia Commons))

Unlike many of his contemporaries, who were often called robber barons, Eastman was very charitable. His philanthropic bent may have been a consequence of his humble beginnings. He donated many millions, sometimes anonymously, to various charities and universities, including two historically black colleges. He donated large sums to the University of Rochester and the Rochester Institute of Technology in his base of operations, Rochester, New York; and also to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The company, Eastman Kodak, had an amazing 133 year existence. However, the technology of the Wright Brothers biplane does not compete in today's jetliner world; likewise, Kodak's chemical process has been overtaken by better digital technologies. Not only that, but these technologies are so inexpensive that digital camera are added as an accessory to all mobile computers and cellphones.

Kodak has promised to honor product warranties and continue technical support for its legacy products.[1] Kodak does have a hefty portfolio of patents on digital image capture that's generated three billion dollars in licensing revenue since 2003, and it's presently suing Samsung, HTC and Apple over alleged infringement of its patents.[2]

Industry observers think that Kodak may be an attractive takeover target because of this intellectual property.[2] Google, which is seeking to acquire Motorola Mobility in part because of its mobile phone patent portfolio,[5] may become interested in Kodak. I think the acquisition price will be fair, because there will likely be more than one suitor.


  1. Kodak exits digital camera market, BBC News, February 9, 2012.
  2. Eastman Kodak files for bankruptcy protection, BBC News, January 19, 2012.
  3. George Eastman, "Photographic Film," US Patent No. 306,470, October 14, 1884.
  4. George Eastman, "Camera," US Patent No. 388,850, September 4, 1888.
  5. Trefis Team, "Google's Motorola Mobility Deal Gets Green Light from U.S. and Europe," Forbes, February 14, 2012.
  6. History of Photography Page on Wikipedia.

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