“As Convenient as the Pencil”


Circa 1890 Kodak circular photo

Reporrtedly one of the earliest photographs taken with a Kodak camera

George Eastman, as almost anyone at all interested in the history of photography knows, was the founder of Kodak, and is regarded as the person who brought photography to the masses. He was an early contributor to the development of dry-plate photography (before which creating a photograph was a much more cumbersome affair, requiring essentially carrying around a darkroom, along with some fairly specialized knowledge of chemistry, etc.) and in 1885 created the first paper film negative. He followed that in 1888 with the first roll film camera, and the rest is…well, one writer has estimated that there have been about 3.5 trillion photos taken to date.

In a section on the history of the company on the Kodak website, the instigation for Eastman’s attempts to simplify the photographic process was apparently a planned vacation to Santo Domingo in 1877, when he was 24 and working as a clerk at Rochester Savings Bank:

“When a co-worker suggested he make a record of the trip, Eastman bought a photographic outfit with all the paraphernalia of the wet plate days. The camera was as big as a microwave oven and needed a heavy tripod. And he carried a tent so that he could spread photographic emulsion on glass plates before exposing them, and develop the exposed plates before they dried out. There were chemicals, glass tanks, a heavy plate holder, and a jug of water. The complete outfit ‘was a pack-horse load,’ as he described it.”

Kodak's George Eastman, circa 1880

George Eastman, circa 1880

Eastman did not make the trip, but his interest in photography was sparked. After a further experience in which some of his chemicals spilled and ruined his packed clothes during a trip to Mackinac Island in Lake Huron, he became even less enamored of wet-plate photography. Then one day he read about photographers in the UK making their own gelatin emulsions (which remained sensitive to light while dry, thus doing away with much of the inconvenience of the wet-plate process). He threw himself headlong into working on his own formula – some nights, according to his mother, sleeping on the floor next to the stove, so tired that he couldn’t undress.

By 1880 Eastman had not only refined his formula, but also patented a machine for producing large quantities of the plates, having quickly recognized “the possibilities of making dry plates for sale to other photographers. ‘The idea gradually dawned on me,’ he later said, ‘that what we were doing was not merely making dry plates, but that we were starting out to make photography an everyday affair.’ Or as he described it more succinctly ‘to make the camera as convenient as the pencil.'”

And that convenience is what early Kodak advertisements stressed, with phrases such as “Anybody can use it,” “No knowledge of photography is necessary” and “Anybody who can wind a watch can use the Kodak camera.” Or, as in the ad below, their famous phrase “You press the button, we do the rest.”

Vintage Kodak camera ad touting its ease of use for amateurs

No instructions – or portable darkroom – needed

And they really did. The cameras came loaded with enough film for 100 exposures, after which the photgrapher would return the camera to the factory. The film was then processed and the camera reloaded and sent back. The resulting shots were 2 1/2″ in diameter and round.

According to camerapedia, “the round image was a design decision, partly as a way of ensuring that the photographer didn’t have to hold the camera exactly level with the horizon, and partly to compensate for the poor image quality at the corners of the image.”

1888 Kodak camera

An example of the first Kodak camera (photo: The National Museum of American History)

The very first camera, produced in 1888, was simply called The Kodak. The model with the name that makes it seem like it was Eastman’s original effort, Kodak No. 1 (also commonly called the No. 1 Kodak), actually was the company’s second camera, and was produced from 1889 to 1895. It featured a more reliable shutter as well as an easily removable lensboard rather than one held in place by screws. The cameras cost $25, which today would be somewhere in the vicinity of $600.

Still to come, of course, were folding pocket cameras, the brownie, and all the rest. But those will be touched on in future posts. In any event, it must have been an exciting time. Within just a few years – by 1892, when the company changed its name from ‘The Eastman Company’ to ‘The Eastman Kodak Company’ – it was capitalized to the tune of 5 million dollars. George Eastman was only in his late 30s at that point, and was already demonstrating his acumen for business. Beyond his technical ingenuity and fierce determination, he just seemed to have a feel for things. As Rudolph Kingslake puts it in A History of the Rochester, NY Camera and Lens Companies, “Eastman’s success over his many competitors was mainly due to massive advertising and an excellent sales organization with world-wide affiliations, to which must be added his uncanny knack of hiring the right people, and anticipating what would best please the public.”

Eastman was an intriguing character, both in his early years and then later in life, and I will of course delve more into his story in future posts.

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