- Historic Sites
“You Press The Button, We Do The Rest”
George Eastman's inexpensive, popular camera helped create the modern age
October 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 6
In the year 1854 a young man named George Washington Eastman rather reluctantly maintained a residence in Waterville, New York. The reluctance arose from the fact that while the hamlet was pleasant enough, its population of a few hundred souls offered no scope for the ambitions and needs of a father of two little girls, with a third child on the way. George Washington Eastman was a teacher of the arts of business, and to find pupils he was obliged to leave his wife Maria, and little Ellen and Emma, for regular trips to Rochester, some seventy miles to the west. As a busy stop on the Erie Canal and a flour-milling center with other growing industries, Rochester furnished a supply of young men to enroll in Eastman’s Commercial College, which he opened there to instruct them in “Commercial Penmanship and Book-Keeping by Double Entry,” as used in all branches of “Trade and Commerce, Including Wholesale, Retail, Commission, Banking, Manufacturing, Shipping and Steam-Boating, Individual Partnership and Compound Company Business.” The cost—diploma included—was twenty-five dollars. An extra five allowed students to take the “teacher’s course,” which included “Ornamental Penmanship in all the Ancient and Modern Hands.”
On July 12, 1854, the new baby—a son, named George—was born. Six years after that the hard-working father moved the family to Rochester and finally eliminated his back-and-forth journeyings. Two years later he died. It is a pity that George Washington Eastman, professor of business, did not live to see his son grow up to become a master of wholesale, retail, manufacturing, and “compound company” affairs—one of the top dozen or so among a generation of entrepreneurs who transformed the United States into a twentieth-century society. For George Eastman belongs on the muster roll of capitalists whose specialty was to wed the scientific discoveries of the nineteenth century to mass-producing and marketing techniques, and thereby to create enormous quantities of goods for Everyman. They made the consumer king, and like court necromancers won favor by providing royalty with comforts, gadgets, and diversions. Like Thomas Edison or Alexander Graham Bell or Henry Ford—to name but a few—Eastman was able to combine his own hunches, his grasp of theory, and other men’s ideas in sharply focused inventions that had immediate, practical, common utility. Like them, too, he was able to orchestrate the work of engineering and merchandising experts so as to put the invented device into the hands of millions.
His presentation to mankind was the inexpensive, popular camera. At first glance it may seem an instrument of much less social gravity and consequence than the electric light, the telephone, or the automobile. But it is worth recollecting that the camera, joined with electric lights and motors (in inventions by Edison), created the movies; that the camera, crossed with the electron gun, is responsible for television. In a certain sense Eastman carries the awesome paternity of the modern age of the image, with all its deep effects on man’s consciousness and sense of reality.
His childhood and youth seemed commonplace enough, though they were given something of a harsh edge by economic adversity. George Washington Eastman’s death left his widow almost penniless. She kept things going by taking in boarders, and the children grew up watching her struggle bitterly with the chores of housekeeping on a pinched budget. George adored his mother and swore from the start that he would repay her for her efforts and sacrifices some day. It became a lodestar in his life.
Still it was not a bad childhood. Young America liked to think of its future heroes as having been specifically toughened by the tasks of frontier farming. But Eastman was a city boy who never split a rail or hunted for the family’s supper. He was a quiet, undistinguished schoolboy, on the whole seemingly more given to prudence than to pranks. He had a knack for tinkering, and likewise a strong attachment to capitalist economics, at an early age. Once he constructed an ingenious puzzle out of wires. An admiring friend asked for it as a gift, but young George demanded, and got, cash on the barrelhead—reputedly ten cents.
At fourteen, like most of his selfsufficient peers, Eastman went forth to wrestle with the world, his formal schooling done. He found a job as an office boy in an insurance company. Though his initial tasks included such lowly assignments as cleaning the boss’s cuspidor, he worked his way steadily upward to clerk. Later he became a junior officer in a bank. His salary began at three dollars a week. By the time he was in his early twenties, the bank was paying him a then very comfortable fourteen hundred a year.