Guide George Eastman: The Kodak King

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George Eastman July 12, — March 14, was an American entrepreneur who founded the Eastman Kodak Company and popularized the use of roll film , helping to bring photography to the mainstream. He was a major philanthropist , establishing the Eastman School of Music , and schools of dentistry and medicine at the University of Rochester and in London Eastman Dental Hospital ; contributing to the Rochester Institute of Technology RIT and the construction of several buildings at the second campus of Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the Charles River.

In addition, he made major donations to Tuskegee University and Hampton University , historically black universities in the South. With interests in improving health, he provided funds for clinics in London and other European cities to serve low-income residents. In his final two years, Eastman was in intense pain caused by a disorder affecting his spine. On March 14, , Eastman shot himself in the heart, leaving a note which read, "To my friends: my work is done. Why wait? Eastman is the only person represented by two stars in the Hollywood Walk of Fame recognizing the same achievement, for his invention of roll film.

He had two older sisters, Ellen Maria and Katie. The city became one of the first "boomtowns" in the United States, based on rapid industrialization. To survive and afford George's schooling, his mother took in boarders. The second daughter, Katie, had contracted polio when young and died in late when George was 15 years old. The young George left school early and started working to help support the family. As Eastman began to have success with his photography business, he vowed to repay his mother for the hardships she had endured in raising him.

In , Eastman patented the first film in roll form to prove practicable; he had been tinkering at home to develop it.


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In , he perfected the Kodak Black camera, which was the first camera designed to use roll film. In he first offered film stock, and by became the leading supplier of film stock internationally. Refinements in colored film stock continued after his death. In an era of growing trade union activities, Eastman sought to counter the union movement by devising worker benefit programs, including, in , the establishment of a profit-sharing program for all employees. She was one of the first women to hold an executive position in a major U. George Eastman never married.

He was close to his mother and to his sister and her family. He had a long platonic relationship with Josephine Dickman, a trained singer and the wife of business associate George Dickman, becoming especially close to her after the death of his mother, Maria Eastman, in He was also an avid traveler and had a passion for playing the piano. The loss of his mother, Maria, was particularly crushing to George. Almost pathologically concerned with decorum, he found himself unable for the first time to control his emotions in the presence of his friends. He continued to honor her after her death.

On September 4, , he opened the Eastman Theater in Rochester, which included a chamber-music hall, Kilbourn Theater, dedicated to his mother's memory. At the Eastman House he maintained a rose bush, using a cutting from her childhood home. Eastman was associated with the Kodak company in an administrative and a business executive capacity until his death; he contributed much to the development of its notable research facilities. In he founded the Eastman Trust and Savings Bank. In Eastman gave up his daily management of Kodak to become treasurer. He concentrated on philanthropic activities, to which he had already donated substantial sums.

For example, he donated funds to establish the Eastman Dental Dispensary in He ranked slightly behind Andrew Carnegie , John D. Rockefeller , and a few others in his philanthropy, but did not seek publicity for his activities. He concentrated on institution-building and causes that could help people's health. The clinic was incorporated into the Royal Free Hospital and was committed to providing dental care for disadvantaged children from central London. It is now a part of University College London.

Eastman also funded Eastmaninstitutet , a dental care clinic for children opened in in Stockholm , Sweden. He had trouble standing, and his walk became a slow shuffle. Today, it might be diagnosed as a form of degenerative disease such as disc herniations from trauma or age causing either painful nerve root compressions, or perhaps a type of lumbar spinal stenosis , a narrowing of the spinal canal caused by calcification in the vertebrae. Since his mother suffered the final two years of her life in a wheelchair, [5] she also may have had a spine condition but that is uncertain.

Only her uterine cancer and successful surgery are documented in her health history. Those who performed were amply rewarded. Quality can only be secured by extreme skill and alertness not only as individuals but as an organization. Eastman Kodak was an early user of employee suggestion boxes. Kodak Bonus Day became a retail holiday in Rochester. By , the company had ten thousand employees. Due to a happy workforce, the company was never unionized.

Virtually all executives were promoted from within. Eastman Kodak had among the lowest employee turnover rates in American industry—less than 10 percent per year.

George Eastman

The company was in good hands. Another unique aspect of Eastman, rare for his era, was that he never married, remaining a bachelor his entire life. At the same time, he was always surrounded by women and shared many of their interests, from gardening to cooking. He loved children and took care of his many relatives and their offspring. He entertained and traveled with women around the world. Several pursued him to no avail. He may have fallen in love early and lost. Perhaps he sublimated his energy into his never-ending projects. There is no question that he was shy, and that he prized his independence.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about George Eastman was his diversity of interests. He leaped from project to project, becoming an expert in each, talking to experts, reading everything he could get his hands on, and then developing a clear, comprehensive plan. He wrote over two hundred thousand letters in his lifetime. While he always had a broad, strategic vision for each project, he never missed a detail. His life was full of the smallest achievements: when workers misplaced tools, he put hooks on the wall and drew the outline of each tool on the wall so none would ever be misplaced. He designed a custom picnic basket for the frequent automobile tours with his friends.

He looked hard at the pipes and plumbing fixtures in every building he was involved in … and on and on and on, in every aspect of his life. Perhaps above all else, he loved architecture and was a continual nettle to his high-priced architects, including the famous New York firm of McKim, Mead, and White.

While Eastman could be generous, he was also good to himself. He owned Packards, Lincolns, Cadillacs, and a custom-made Cunningham automobile. He traveled all over the United States, often six weeks at a time, and took an entourage of friends, relatives, and work associates with him. He bicycled around Europe, and later ventured to Africa to hunt big game and take pictures.

He took a long trip to Japan. He took his first airplane ride in , a brave thing to do, and later rode in the Goodyear blimp. He climbed mountains. He bought gifts for his friends and employees, and art for himself. He went to the theater nightly when in the cities. He hired the finest musicians to come to Rochester to play for him and for the public. He threw massive parties and events at his house and at the company.

His greatest extravagance was his mansion, Eastman House. The 42,square-foot palace had thirty-seven rooms and thirteen baths and was surrounded by acres of flowers and gardens. There was a staff of forty inside and fifteen outside to care for the grounds. Even the maids had a maid. Every Wednesday evening and every Sunday, GE held concerts for his friends and family. He frequently entertained lavish events, despite his inherent shyness.

But no matter how much he spent on himself, he gave most of his wealth away. A list of his activities and charities would fill a book. He began free dentistry clinics for poor children in Rochester, believing that prevention was as important as curative work. He expanded this system across the capitals of Europe. A lifelong Republican, he fought his old friend the Republican mayor to press through a city-manager system of government which he believed to be more efficient.

He gave massive amounts of money to the black Tuskegee and Hampton Institutes at the urging of his friend Booker T. He led the campaign for and designed the Chamber of Commerce building in Rochester, and did the same for orphanages, hospitals, the YMCA, and many other local projects. Compared to the standard Gregorian calendar, the Cotsworth system meant that weekly, monthly, and annual sales and other records were directly comparable, with the number of weekends the same in each month.

Eastman Kodak adopted the system in and used it until In perhaps his most audacious move, in he financed an entire new campus for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology MIT , from which he had hired some of his best chemists. Newspapers raged with rumors as to who Mr. Smith might be. No one suspected Eastman, who was not yet known nationally as a philanthropist. When the buildings opened in , events were held around the United States to celebrate. One of the projects he loved most was the Eastman Theater.

His visionary scheme was to show silent movies backed by an organ and fifty-member orchestra six days a week, then use the proceeds to finance the Symphony Orchestra which played serious music once a week in the same hall. He believed that the world had enough performers but needed more educated listeners. He visited the theater each evening to count the receipts, and often previewed movies until two in the morning. He made the concerts accessible to all. But when talkies replaced silent movies, the revenue concept failed, one of his bigger disappointments.

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Eastman also drove the creation of the Eastman School of Music, drawing the finest students and teachers from around the world, but also offering free or inexpensive music classes to local children. In recent years, the Eastman School of Music has been rated 1 in the United States, continuing his legacy of excellence. Above all else, Eastman drove the development of the University of Rochester, picking the best university president, and building a new campus. In most cases, his gifts depended on others putting up additional funds, a very modern approach to philanthropy.

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Eastman was stoic about death. He did not fear it. Throughout his life, he refused to support religious charities, believing them worthwhile but not subscribing to their beliefs himself. By the end of the s, he had become less able to travel. Heart disease, a spinal ailment, and other infirmities held him back. He had trouble walking. Having been active and energetic all his life, his spirits sunk. Reading his biography, one must believe his condition worsened when his nurses and housekeepers kept his old friends away, or limited their visits.

On Monday, March 14, , at the age of seventy-seven, he dictated a few letters and made final revisions to his will. After the others had left, he smoked one last Lucky Strike cigarette, folded a wet towel over his chest to prevent powder burns, and pointed a Luger automatic gun at the outline of his heart and pulled the trigger. He left a note,. People and messages came from around the world to wish the old man off.

His hundreds of old friends wept openly. He was always careful with money, spending it only on his hobby, amateur photography. When photographic chemicals among his cameras and supplies ruined his packed clothes on a trip to Mackinac Island, he became disgusted with the wet-plate process of producing photographs. In the s American photography was still time-consuming, difficult, and expensive. Equipment included a huge camera, strong tripod a three-legged stand , large plateholder, dark tent, chemicals, water container, and heavy glass plates.

Eastman experimented using dry plates. He was the first American to contribute to the improvement of photographic methods by coating glass plates with gelatin, a gummy substance, and silver bromide, a chemical. In his coating machine was patented in England, and in he received an American patent for it.

He sold his English patent and opened a shop to manufacture photographic plates in Rochester. To do away with glass plates, Eastman coated paper with gelatin and photographic chemicals. The developed film was stripped from the paper to make a negative. This film was rolled on spools. Eastman and William Walker created a lightweight roll holder that would fit any camera. Amateurs could develop pictures after Eastman substituted transparent see-through film for the paper in The long patent battle between Goodwin and Eastman was the most important legal dispute in photographic history.


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A federal court decision in August favored Goodwin. Goodwin's family and Ansco Company, owners of his patent, received five million dollars from Eastman in In Eastman designed a simple camera, the Kodak a word created by Eastman; it has no meaning , which was easy to carry and made focusing and adjusting the light unnecessary. With a hundred-exposure roll of film, it sold for twenty-five dollars.

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After taking the pictures and sending the camera and ten dollars to the Rochester factory, the photographer received his prints and reloaded camera. Eastman's slogan, "You press the button, we do the rest," became well known. Eastman expected that photography would soon become more popular, and in he established the Eastman Kodak George Eastman. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.