The Timeless Genius of Kodak’s George Eastman

By  |  Saturday, January 7, 2012 at 3:32 pm

Over at the Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal has an exceptionally good post with an exceptionally good title: “The Triumph of Kodakery.” Inspired by the sad news that Eastman Kodak may be on the verge of bankruptcy, he points out that the dream the company was built on–making photography so effortless that it’s everywhere, and enjoyed by everybody–is hardly in trouble. It’s just that its purest expression today is the camera phone, not a Kodak camera that takes Kodak film that’s processed by a Kodak lab.
The dream originated in the brain of the gentleman in the above photo, George Eastman (1854-1932). He was the founder of Eastman Kodak, and he didn’t just start one of the most important companies in the history of consumer technology products. He played as important a role as anyone in inventing the idea of consumer technology products. 
Even more than such other pioneering technologist-entrepreneurs as Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and Henry Ford, Eastman seems astoundingly contemporary. If he showed up in Silicon Valley today, he’d be right at home. (Actually, he might have as good a shot as anyone at fixing what ails Kodak.) 

A few of the things that make Eastman so cool, and his accomplishments so timeless:
1. He was self-taught. Like Edwin Land, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and other johnnies-come-lately, Eastman was not a college graduate. He wasn’t a high school graduate either–he dropped out at the age of 14 and took a job as a messenger boy for an insurance company. A decade later, when he began the photographic experiments that led to the founding of Kodak, he was just an enthusiastic amateur who wanted to make picture-taking easier.
2. He came up with the name “Kodak.” For a trademark registered in 1888, during Grover Cleveland’s first administration, it sounds remarkably contemporary. It was a made-up name that didn’t allude to anything in particular: Eastman said he chose it because it was short, impossible to pronounce incorrectly, and unique. You couldn’t come up with better branding advice than that today.
3. He envisioned something that didn’t exist, then kept making it better. Photography was the province of experts until Eastman came along. He personally invented much of the technology that made it a hobby for everybody, such as roll film. Then other Kodak employees spent decades inventing important breakthroughs, such as Kodakchrome, the first 35mm color film.
4. He had good taste. In the 1920s, Kodak hired Walter Dorwin Teague–one of the inventors of modern industrial design, and basically the Jonathan Ive of his era. He spent the next several decades creating striking cameras for the company, including the still-amazing Beau Brownie. (Like an iPad Nano, the Beau came in five different colors.)
5. He was a brilliant marketer. From very early in its history, Kodak advertised its products in newspapers and magazines, on billboards and electric signs. It licensed the popular Brownies and named a camera after them back when the notion of such merchandising barely existed. Eastman wrote some of the ad copy himself, and slogans such as “You Push the Button, We Do The Rest” still work today. For decades, Coca-Cola may have been the only other commercial product that managed to be even more omnipresent.
6. He was an extremely progressive boss. Kodak was a great place to work, in part because Eastman turned a third of the company over to an employee profit-sharing plan, making everybody into owners. He also gave much of his fortune to an array of universities and charitable institutions, often under the pseudonym “Mr. Smith.”
7. He was delightfully eccentric. If you’ve never been to the George Eastman House in Rochester, go there if you possibly can. Among other things, you’ll see the living room which Eastman had sawed in half and pieced back together because he decided he didn’t like the proportions of the room, and the centrally-controlled clocks at eye level, which he had installed in walls so he could politely check the time without anyone noticing. The man knew how to have fun with his riches.
Unlike Polaroid, which floundered after it pushed out its founder, Edwin Land, Kodak managed to stay extremely successful for decades after Eastman’s day. I’m still rooting for the company to avoid the fate of Polaroid, which exists today mostly as a shell organization that licenses out its once-proud name for everything from digital cameras to Blu-Ray players. But even if Kodak does fall apart, it’s not because George Eastman’s vision was rendered obsolete. If Eastman and Land were alive today, I’ll bet they’d have a deep appreciation of appeal of Instagram. Heck, I wouldn’t be stunned if one of them had invented Instagram…

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15 Comments For This Post

  1. Manga University Says:

    Great article, Henry. But in #2, don't you mean "easy" to pronounce? A trademark that is impossible to pronounce doesn't seem to be a good one.

  2. Harry McCracken Says:

    Yes, dropped word! Thanks for catching it.

  3. Manga University Says:

    Sorry, Harry! Didn't mean to call you "Henry"!

  4. swildstrom Says:

    Whiles Eastman was largely self-educated, he valued education. He was the primary force behind the move of MIT from its original Back Bay campus to its present digs in Cambridge. MIT students still rub the well-polished nose of the relief of Eastman in Building 6 for good luck.

  5. quickbrownfox Says:

    George Eastman shared the years of his life (1854-1932) with another genius, who was a brilliant American composer and marketer, John Philip Sousa. It would not surprise me if these two great men were at least acquaintances, if not friends.

  6. Jerry Lee Says:

    I hope they make it, it would be a sad day if the name Kodak was used in the past tense only!!

  7. nickp91 Says:

    George Eastman, the founder of Kodak was best friends with Thomas Edison

  8. frederique bros Says:

    what a great story! keep up the good work

  9. Judy Says:

    Another institution that George Eastman started and is going stong today is Eastman Dental Center which is now the Eastman Institute for Oral Health located, yes, In Rochester New York. There are other Eastman Dental Centers around the world as well.

  10. johnwbaxter Says:

    During the fund raising for the move of "Boston Tech" across to Cambridge as MIT, President Maclaurin went up to Rochester to see Eastman. He presented his case, to a rather stoney silence from Mr. Eastman. As he got up to leave, disappointed, Eastman asked "How much do you need?"

    Maclaurin replied "$10,000,000"

    Eastman said: "You'll have my draft in the morning."

    Paraphrased from the book "When MIT was Boston Tech" (I think). I was in the 1961 (centenial) class, so got plenty of exposure to this stuff.

  11. The_Heraclitus Says:

    A brilliant inventor & businessman. An almost extinct breed in the US

  12. Reader Says:

    #2 No dropped word. What was written was "impossible to pronounce incorrectly"

  13. nggakingat Says:

    I bought my first (and still my only) digital camera, a Kodak Easyshare, back in 2004, and it still works now. This trouble kodak is in makes me sad. Here in Indonesia, 'camera' largely synonymous with 'Kodak'.

  14. nick Says:

    I have used Kodak cameras since my first "Brownie" camera and today own two Kodak digital cameras that are superb in practicality, ease of use and great images. I too am saddened by the state of Eastman-Kodak. The fault I believe is in the consumer believing that Kodak builds an inferior product and Kodak's inability to properly market their product. It is a shame because at the price level of their cameras they are a great value and far better than the competitions imho.

  15. The Irishman Says:

    I was a Chemist for Eastman Kodak in Roch from 1969 til 1983. I worked on Kodacolor II and the instant camera Chemistry! Greatest job I've every had, but I saw the writing on the wall and moved from Roch, NY to FLORIDA, where you can go play outside year round. My years at Kodak were great, just the weather sucked!