Biography of George Eastman
George Eastman, the founder of Eastman Kodak Company, is heralded as the father of popular photography and inventor of motion-picture film. He was born in 1854 in the Central New York village of Waterville. That same year, his father, George Washington Eastman, established Eastman’s Commercial College in Rochester. After many trips between Waterville and Rochester, the elder Eastman moved the family to Rochester in 1860. Two years later, he died suddenly, leaving his family with few financial resources.
George Eastman left school at age 14 to support his mother, Maria Kilbourn Eastman, and two older sisters, Ellen and Kate. He first worked at a local insurance company and then was hired as a junior clerk by the Rochester Savings Bank.
In 1878, one of Eastman’s colleagues suggested that Eastman, 23, take a camera on an upcoming vacation with this mother to Santo Domingo. Eastman bought a photographic outfit, and although he never made the journey, he became fully engrossed in photography.
The weight, awkwardness, and cost of a photographic outfit soon led Eastman to experiment on improvements. Unhappy with the excessive work and materials required to take and develop photographs, Eastman searched for a simpler way to develop negatives. He spent three years in his mother’s kitchen experimenting with gelatin emulsions. By 1880, Eastman had invented and patented a dry-plate coating machine.
In 1881, with the financial backing of Henry Strong, Eastman and Strong formed the Eastman Dry Plate Company. Eastman, treasurer of his newly formed company, resigned from the Rochester Savings Bank. In 1884, the Eastman Dry Plate Company was reincorporated as the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company. They then patented and produced rollable film as an alternative to the glass negative.
Eastman founded the Eastman Kodak Company in 1892, an organization that revolutionized photography through simplification. With a series of landmark innovations, the company created small, easy-to-use cameras like the famous Kodak camera introduced in 1888 with the motto: You press the button, we do the rest. The company also invented a flexible film that helped launch the motion picture industry. Today Eastman is known as the man who brought the joy of photography to millions around the world.
In 1888 Eastman invented the word “Kodak” as a distinctive name for a film camera he was developing. He needed a strong, short, distinctive word that would also meet foreign trademark laws, and the letter “K” was a personal favorite of Eastman’s. According to him, “It became a question of trying out a great number of combinations of letters that made words starting and ending with ‘K.’ The word ‘Kodak’ is the result.”
The first Kodak camera, costing $25, came out in 1888. It came with 100 exposures and the user could send the camera back to Kodak for the film to be processed and developed. It was not until 1900 that the first of the famous “Brownie” cameras was introduced. It cost $1 and used film that sold for 15 cents a roll. The “Brownie” camera was easy for anyone to use and it made photography available to people of all ages.
Eastman succeeded in bringing the Eastman Kodak Company to the forefront of the photography industry. By 1902, he was ready to begin building his “dream house.” Eastman wanted a house like the Root House in Buffalo, N.Y., with its Colonial Revival-style architecture and light-colored Roman bricks.
Eastman hired architect J. Foster Warner and plans for the Eastman mansion began in 1902. Although Warner was the principal architect, Eastman remained involved in every aspect of the construction. He required the use of high quality materials and paid close attention to detail. The total cost of the construction was $335,000, and the 35,000-square-foot, 50-room house included state-of-the-art heating and electricity, telephones, a centralized clock system, and an elevator.
Eastman then hired the premiere New York firm McKim, Mead, and White to design the interior of the house. Previously, they worked on Andrew Carnegie’s house in New York and the White House. Mr. Eastman’s mansion was completed in 1905, and he celebrated with a gala celebration that October.
Eastman was also a very generous man, and during his life he donated more than $100 million to educational and arts institutions, public parks, hospitals, dental clinics, and charitable organizations around the world. Education interested Mr. Eastman very much, and he even contacted the presidents of several universities to ask for the names of young men who could come work for Kodak.
Throughout his life, Eastman donated nearly $20 million to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Mechanics Institute, now the Rochester Institute of Technology, received a gift of $625,000 in 1901. Eastman also gave approximately $2 million each to Tuskegee Institute and to Hampton Institute, both Southern and predominantly African-American colleges.
Eastman felt a strong tie to the community of Rochester. He founded the Community Chest (which later became the local United Way), planned for a school of music, and pioneered the first employee profit-sharing program in America. At the time of his death, he left most of his estate, including his house, to the University of Rochester.
Eastman was a successful business man and a generous philanthropist, yet he enjoyed his leisure time. Before his retirement in 1925, he worked long hours at Kodak. After he retired, Eastman pursued adventure in the American West and in the African jungle.
One of Eastman’s best known trips was his safari to Kenya taken between March and October 1926. He traveled with his personal doctor and the famous wildlife researchers and photographers Martin and Osa Johnson.
While in Africa, Eastman met with Carl Akeley, a naturalist and taxidermist from the United States. Akeley was collecting specimens to begin the African Hall for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. These meetings secured the inclusion of donations from Eastman’s safari for the museum’s collections.
Eastman went on a second safari, up the Nile to Uganda, in 1928. On this trip, he bagged two of his most highly prized trophies, a white rhinoceros and an elephant. When he returned to Rochester, Eastman displayed the head of the elephant in the conservatory of his house. A replica is exhibited in its original location in the mansion.
Eastman enjoyed his many traveling adventures. After he returned from his second trip to Africa however, he was diagnosed with a progressive and irreversible spinal disease. On March 14, 1932, Eastman ended his own life. In a note to friends, Eastman wrote, “My work is done. Why wait?”
Although he believed his work was done, Eastman’s company continued to expand. Today Eastman Kodak Company is one of the world’s largest, most successful film manufacturers.
To ensure the success of his company in Rochester, Eastman left in his will money that would encourage education, appreciation of the arts, and expansion of medical services in the community. Eastman’s generosity and love for Rochester continues to be reflected through his gifts, such as the University of Rochester’s Eastman Dental Center and Eastman School of Music. These organizations have kept alive Eastman’s wish to continuously improve the quality of life for Rochesterians.