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“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
The process then used was wetplate photography, in which the image was recorded on glass plates coated with a light-sensitive emulsion. It was necessary to prepare the plates immediately before use and expose and develop them before they dried. To achieve this a formidable amount of gear was required. Eastman’s initial purchases—the bill of sale for which he carefully preserved —came to over fifty dollars, a goodly sum in 1877, and subsequent acquisitions raised his opening investment in the art to more than ninety dollars, which possibly did not include the five he paid someone for lessons. The starting kit included not only the heavy camera itself, together with a tripod, plus plates, paper, boxes for storing negatives, and a tent that could be set up as a darkroom, but also the furnishings of a small chemistry laboratory—nitrate of silver, acetate soda, chlorides of gold, sodium, and iron, collodion, varnish, alcohol, litmus paper, hydrometer, graduate, evaporating dish, funnel, bristle brush, scales and weights, and washing pans. Ail of this had to be packed along to the site of the picture taking, which therefore became a hobby only for the affluent and for the extraordinarily patient and dedicated.
It would become Eastman’s fate to change all this. The mysterious internal process that drew him at once to become deeply involved with the camera is beyond the historian’s probe. It is enough to say that the young bank clerk began to spend increasing amounts of time behind the lens and in the developing room, and to read everything he could lay hands on concerning photographic techniques. At some point his pastime began to demand a share of his energy that could have encroached on his business career if he had not decided to make his pastime his business. This turning point was reached some time in 1878. Later on—perhaps with the benefit of hindsight—Eastman expressed a philosophy that explained the development of his career. Though he enjoyed reading about science, he declared in a magazine article written when he was nearly sixty, the intellectual adventure of pure research was not fulfilling. “There is, to me,” he said, “more adventure in putting each discovery to the ultimate test of public use, for then the discovery becomes an addition to everyday life.” If this was, in fact, a belief that he held at twenty-four, it explains why he moved quickly toward making photography more efficient and more available to others.
Eastman’s first interest, like that of other photographers at the time, was in devising a dry plate, which would eliminate the awkward need for immediate development of a shot. The problem was to find an emulsion that would keep its sensitivity even when dried and held in storage. In the journals of photography, both British and American, to which Eastman subscribed, enthusiastic amateurs exchanged recipes for such emulsions like gourmet cooks. He himself joined zealously in the quest. He continued to work at the bank by day, but at night he would return to the rented house faithfully kept by his mother, eat supper, then go into the kitchen to measure, pour, stir, and test for hours on end. He had great powers of concentration. Often he would remain at this task overnight, and when this proved too taxing, he set up a cot so that he could fall upon it, fully dressed, for restorative naps. A youthful constitution buoyed him through these rigors, and by 1880 he had invented and patented not only a dry plate but a machine for preparing large numbers of such plates quickly. The basis of his process not the only one on the market, to be sure—was an emulsion containing gelatin, which when dried adequately protected the sensitized surface against the hard knocks of shipment and usage.
Now he vaulted into the world of self-employment. Hc had his patents, he had three thousand dollars in savings, and to strengthen his hand he took a partner. One of his mother’s boarders had been Henry A. Strong, a likable manufacturer of buggywhips who had grown attached to Eastman and who would one daywrite him: “You are a queer cuss, Geo., … but I want you to know . . . that I am always with you heart and hand. Never take my silence for indifference. … We surely are neither of us very demonstrative.”
Undemonstrative or not, Strong had enough faith in his young friend to join him in renting one floor of a factory building and commencing the operations of the Eastman Dry Plate Company, which officially went into business on New Year’s Day, 1881.
The first year was sweaty and successful. No longer the leisure-loving young bachelor, Eastman worked with incredible energy at finding jobbers and customers, publicizing the firm, overseeing the physical details of production—and improving the product. He would not rest content with merely an entry into a branch of the photographic-supply business. “The idea graduallydawned on me,” he recollected later, “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 afterward put it more crisply, to “make the camera as convenient as the pencil.”