“you Press The Button, We Do The Rest”


It is an axiom that one technology replaces another only because the new technology is better or cheaper, or both. A century ago the automobile, despite its high cost, replaced the horse and buggy in a matter of two decades because even the primitive automobiles of the day were faster, safer, and more versatile and reliable than the horse. After Henry Ford came along, they were also cheaper.

Today electronic technology is replacing mechanical technology for the same reasons. One major American industry now rapidly going electronic is photography. Instead of having film store information by means of changes in light-sensitive chemicals, a light-sensitive computer chip stores it electronically. This information can then be transferred to a computer and viewed instantly on the monitor. The pictures can be stored in the computer as well as printed out. And digital photography is much cheaper than film photography. There’s no film to buy and no development costs.

Once the software has been mastered, images can be manipulated in endless ways, not to mention sent off to Grandma by e-mail. But the software that comes with digital cameras, or that can be bought separately, is a problem. It is complex and intimidating to anyone who is not a techie. The instructions are often opaque with jargon and undefined terms.

The brand-new digital camera industry should take a look at the history of popular photography in the nineteenth century and especially at the man who made it popular, George Eastman. Photography was one of the seemingly miraculous developments of the first half of the nineteenth century that gave the Victorians such a profound sense of progress. For the first time in history a moment could be captured forever. And because photography was far cheaper than the technology it began to replace—that is, the human artist—people of ordinary means could for the first time preserve images of themselves, their friends and families, even their pets.

What ordinary people couldn’t do, however, was take photographs themselves. Even after the faster wet collodion process had replaced competing technologies by the 1860s, photography was a complex, expensive, and messy business. The market for photographic equipment was therefore restricted to professionals and very serious amateurs.

Photography was at this stage of development when an up-and-coming young businessman from Rochester, New York, named George Eastman, began taking an interest in the subject. Eastman had been born on a small farm near Waterville, New York, on July 12, 1854. The panic of 1857, the ensuing depression, and an attack of inflammatory rheumatism sent his father’s career into decline, and in 1862, when George was eight, his father died, leaving the family with debts. George’s mother had to take in boarders to make ends meet, and the Eastmans seem to have been depressed not only financially but emotionally. “I never smiled until I was forty,” Eastman recalled years later.


That, surely, is a considerable exaggeration, for Eastman led a notably active life and had no trouble making his way in the world. Although he left school after the seventh grade to get a job at three dollars a week, he was an avid reader, and new things always interested him. By the time he was 15, he was earning six dollars a week, a very good wage for an adolescent.

At 21 he had a job at the Rochester Savings Bank that paid him $1,000 a year, a middle-class income. In 1877 he was prosperous enough to plan a trip to Santo Domingo, and he bought a camera to take along, paying $49.58, according to his meticulously kept personal accounts. He got more than just a camera. Indeed, he also got, according to a letter he wrote in 1891, “a tripod, plus plates, paper, boxes for storing negatives, and a tent that he could set up as a darkroom, also the furnishings of a small chemistry laboratory—nitrate of silver, acetate soda, chlorides of gold, sodium, and iron, collodion, varnish, alcohol....” To learn how to use all this paraphernalia, he spent five dollars taking lessons.

As chance would have it, just as Eastman was learning the wet collodion process, photography was taking one of its great technological leaps. Dry plates, in which the light-sensitive chemicals are suspended in a thin coating of gelatin, could be stored until needed and stored after exposure until processed. Most of the stuff Eastman had had to buy with his camera would no longer be necessary.

He read about the new process in an article in the March 1878 edition of the British Journal of Photography , to which he had subscribed just the previous month. It was almost a eureka moment for the young man. He at once began tinkering with dry-plate emulsions for his own use, and he quickly realized that while wet plates could only be assembled as needed, dry plates could be manufactured. He decided to do exactly that.

He consulted George Monroe, who had given him his photography lessons, and also, crucially, George Selden. Selden was one of only two amateur photographers in Rochester at the time. More important, he was also a first-rate patent attorney (in 1895 he would exploit weaknesses in the patent law to obtain a patent on the idea of the gasoline-driven automobile, an invention that in fact had hundreds of fathers. One of them, Henry Ford, would break the patent in 1911.)