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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
There were ups and downs. In the first three months the firm got enough orders to occupy six employees. And before the end of 1881 the company was in larger quarters, in a fourstory building on State Street, Rochester’s major downtown thoroughfare. Eastman had also gone abroad, found dealers, and set up offices in England. But then disaster almost overwhelmed him. Reports came back to Rochester from across the Atlantic: plate after plate made by the firm had turned out defective.
Eastman met the crisis with dispatch. He set associates to work around the clock checking factory operations to see what was going wrong, and immediately took ship for England to examine the defective stock. He then, figuratively, took a deep breath and sent a message to every customer: each and every bad plate would be replaced without charge. There was no way of knowing the extent of this commitment when it was made. For all Eastman knew, his entire product for months might have been useless. As it turned out, however, only a single batch of emulsion had gone bad, and only a limited number of plates had slowly deteriorated on wholesalers’ and shopkeepers’ shelves. Eastman emerged from the episode with a solid reputation for standing behind his product.
By early 1883 the bit was in his teeth. He wanted to go beyond dry plates, which were still, after all, fragile and space-consuming sheets of treated glass. Photographers were now looking for something else—a material that would be lightweight, flexible, easily stored (perhaps in the camera itself), and durable—a “film” on which images could be captured, to be printed later.
Eastman did not conceive of the idea of film on his own. He was not the first or last man to experiment with an eye to creating it, and some of his company’s basic patents were discovered by others and only purchased by him. (At least one inventor claimed priority on a fundamental Eastman process, and won his lawsuit.) Yet Eastman was the persistent, determined leader who put the power of organization and capital into the quest. It had taken him but five years—1878 to 1883—to move from amateur picture taking to success as a manufacturer of equipment that made life easier for thousands of other amateurs. In just the next five years he would move most of the remaining distance toward the goal of a camera “as convenient as the pencil.”
Film was the key innovation. The problem was to find a substance that could be produced in a continuous strip—like a set of dry plates joined together—drawn past the lens, and subjected to the handling that would turn exposures into prints without stretching and tearing. The first result achieved by Eastman and his coworkers was an emulsion containing collodion, which was a solution of nitrocellulose in ether and alcohol that dried to a tough film and had been used to coat plates and in other photographic applications since the early days of the art. (It was also esteemed by doctors for holding dressings in place and covering wounds and lesions.) This emulsion was spread on a strip of paper and dried. The paper, which provided the necessary tensile strength and spooling properties, was stripped away after exposure, and the film proper could then be processed successfully. In 1884 Eastman’s company took out patents on this American Film, as he called it, and prepared for an assault on the market. He reorganized his firm under a new name, the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company. Its capital was increased to $200,000. Half of that was the estimated value of the patents held by Strong, Eastman, and an associate named William H. Walker, and half was new capital. The simple partnership of Eastman and Strong was on its way to becoming a major corporation. In 1885 a device called a roll holder—an attachment for any camera, which carried a supply of the paper-backed film—was patented.
The film and holder by themselves were important steps but not enough to guarantee the creation of a true mass market for cameras. There were handling problems that involved inexperienced users in disaster—most especially the stripping operation, during which the film often was pulled out of shape or hopelessly ripped. Eastman saw that what was needed was a “complete system” that could somehow be utilized by anyone, even a photographic ignoramus wholly unaware of the very definition of such words as “lens” and “negative” but simplyanxious to have a picture of what he saw before him. The answer would lie in both a better film and a better camera.
While the quest for film was in progress, Eastman’s plant, and others, had been working toward small and light cameras to replace the heavy, tripod-mounted instruments that, with their long bellows, were familiar in studios. A few box-shaped hand cameras were available early in the 1880’s, and because they sometimes were unrecognizable as photographic equipment, they theoretically allowed subjects to be taken unawares. For this reason they were called detective cameras. Eastman designed and marketed one in 1886, but it ran into production difficulties. It was not fated, therefore, to be what he was really looking for—a camera “that would take pictures in the hands of a greenhorn.”