“you Press The Button, We Do The Rest”


In 1888 that camera was born. Into the world came Everyman’s magic box for freezing moments of personal history into pictorial permanence. All in the wink of an eye, the click of a shutter, it could imprint a memory on a piece of paper for time unending. If photography itself was something of a miracle, this made the miracle instantaneous and almost anyone a miracle worker. The new camera bore a strange name, proudly worked out (and later explicated) by Eastman. “Kodak,” he called it, because a trademark should be short, vigorous, incapable of being misspelled to an extent that will destroy its identity and—in order to satisfy trademark laws—it must mean nothing. …

The letter “K” had been a favorite with me—it seems a strong, incisive sort of letter. Therefore, the word I wanted had to start with “K.” Then it became a question of trying out a great number of combinations of letters that made words starting and ending with “K.” The word Kodak is the result. Instead of merely making cameras and camera supplies, we made Kodaks and Kodak supplies. It became the distinctive word for our products. Hence the slogan: “If it isn’t an Eastman, it isn’t a Kodak.”

It was a superb trade name; it had something of the snap of the lensopening mechanism about it—something brisk and decisive. It was a near-palindrome, almost impossible to forget or misspell. And like “Victrola,” “Thermos bottle,” and “Scotch Tape"—all manufacturers’ names for brands of record players, vacuum bottles, and cellophane tape —“Kodak,” as Eastman desired and predicted, became the perfect trademark, a synonym for the product itself.

The primal Kodak—the Model T of cameradom—was compact by standards of that time. It was 6½ inches long, 3¼ wide, and 3¾ inches high. Made of wood, it had a fixedfocus lens. It could easily be carried in a leather case. The picture it took was round and a scant 2½ inches in diameter. And it cost twenty-five dollars. The owner was emancipated from any concern with even the simplest mechanics. The camera came already loaded with enough film for one hundred exposures. The shutter was snapped, a key wound to advance the film, and a string pulled to recock the shutter. And when the last photo was taken, the user simply sent the entire box back to Rochester. There Eastman’s specially trained workers opened it, stripped the film, developed the shots, and returned to the sender his finished prints, and the camera, reloaded. This cost ten dollars, but it meant that once the initial cost was absorbed, a Kodak buyer was getting pictures at ten cents apiece. No matter how much of a duffer he was, moreover, if he could point the camera at a target in enough light, he could count on capturing the scene. Eastman’s advertising slogan was not only inspired in being concise and personal but, unlike many such statements, was also literally true. It said, with majestic simplicity: “You press the button, we do the rest.”

Eighteen eighty-eight was Kodak’s birth year. Eighteen eighty-nine saw another major step. A chemist hired by Eastman, Henry Reichenbach, had been busily working for three years on a film that would not need any backing. Eastman was spurred on in the search by requests from Thomas Edison for something that he could use in the motion-picture camera he was developing. It would have to be tough enough to be perforated and whirled rapidly through sprocketed wheels, and it would have to be capable of being produced in great lengths.

Reichenbach built upon experimental foundations that had already been laid in treating collodion with various substances and that had resulted in the invention of celluloid in 1868. He finally found that a mixture of camphor, fusel oil, and amyl acetate, dissolved in a solution of nitrocellulose and wood alcohol, would dry to form a transparent negative film that needed no support from paper or anything else. The discovery not only opened the door to movie making but it emancipated even Kodak users from the extra step of returning their films to the plant for stripping and processing. The way was now open for development at home or, in time, at any of numerous photographic stores, and eventually corner drugstores. The new film was a crowning touch.

Reichenbach and Eastman did not know that almost simultaneously with their application for a patent for this new kind of roll film a New Jersey minister named Hannibal Goodwin had come up with an essentially similar invention. Goodwin lacked the funds to make the necessary tests, so he did not receive his patent for another eleven years. Eastman, on the other hand, was able to rush into the marketplace. Goodwin’s patents later found their way into the hands of the Ansco Company, and in 1914, after lengthy litigation (and after Goodwin’s death), a court ruled that Eastman had to pay Ansco five million dollars, despite his grumbling that “Mr. Goodwin never made a roll of film.” By then Reichenbach had long since left the Eastman company—fired after a quarrel and the discovery that he was planning to set up a rival firm. So neither of the two inventors of film shared Eastman’s later reputation as the true begetter of popular photography, a fame which he deserved, but more as promoter and manufacturer than as sole scientific discoverer.