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The Kodak Camera

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These images illustrate the equipment that the professional photographer would have to transport around to take wet-plate photos in the mid-19th century.
These images illustrate the equipment that the professional photographer would have to transport around to take wet-plate photos in the mid-19th century.
The Digital camera invented by Steven Sasson in 1975
The Digital camera invented by Steven Sasson in 1975

125 years ago, George Eastman introduced the “Kodak” camera. He had identified a yet-untapped human desire to record the images of everyday life. In so doing, Eastman transformed photography from the esoteric pursuit of the few into a truly mass cultural phenomenon. This small camera “democratized” people’s access to picture taking. The Kodak brand name quickly grew into a world-wide icon. By the 1960s, the term “Kodak moment” had become part of the American popular lexicon. People’s desire to capture every aspect of their lives, which Eastman had first unleashed 125 years ago, then found new technological enablers in the late 20th century with the advent of Charged-Coupled Devices (CCD). The stage for the elimination of film was set. Here, too, Kodak did pioneering work. And yet, even though a division of Kodak had been one of the first to experiment with CCD-based photography, Kodak was not nimble enough to adapt to this revolution in photography. At the heart of the problem was a corporate culture that was deeply rooted in the 19th century innovation of film, which ironically had been the basis of Kodak’s emergence as a business empire.

To understand the profound significance of film, one must appreciate the complexity of the photographic practices that emerged in the decades immediately following the birth of photography. For the thousands of years only the artist could capture visual reality. However, painting, as a way of recording moments in life was only available to a tiny fraction of society. Only a minute portion of society could commission an artist to create a portrait, a family scene, or a favorite landscape. The vast majority of people had absolutely no visual remembrances of their lives. Then at the start of the 19th century, as Humphrey Davy wrote in 1802 in the Journals of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, Thomas Wedgewood, the son of the famous industrialist Josiah Wedgewood, had found that paper moistened with a silver nitrate solution would undergo color changes, from shades of grey and brown and finally to black, when exposed to light. Wedgewood, as Davy went on to report, had failed in all his experiments to expose an image on the paper using a “camera obscura.” But now the race was on to discover a way. In 1839, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre (1789 - 1851) provided the first practical solution. He used a copper plate coated with iodized silver. The image, however, only became visible when mercury vapor was passed over the copper plate. For the reader, this method may seem far from practical, and even dangerous, but at the time, it offered the first reliable way to produce good quality images. Since Daguerre’s process produced a positive, making good reproductions of the photograph was very difficult. Then the idea of the negative was born.

For the next half century, the key technical progress in photography revolved around the glass plate negatives. For several decades, the “wet-plate” offered the best negative. It produced excellent images, but its use was very intricate, exceedingly cumbersome, and quite expensive. Just before shooting, the photographer had to evenly distribute an iodide or bromide collodion over a large thick glass plate. Then in a dark room, immerse the plate in silver nitrate. From the bath, the photographer had to quickly get the plate into the camera without exposing it to light. The photographer had only minutes to get the plate developed after it had been sensitized. When not in a studio, photographers had to carry all the plate processing and developing paraphernalia where ever they went. Only a professional, or a highly motivated hobbyist, had the skill, and budget to use wet plates. George Eastman was such a hobbyist.

By 1877, the 23-year-old Eastman was on his way to a successful banking career in Rochester. Then he came under the spell of photography. Eastman invested in all the expensive equipment needed to take and develop wet-plate photographs. He even paid a local professional photographer to teach him all the basics. Eastman’s thoughts quickly turned to the obstacles that the burdensome wet-plates posed to growth of photography. In 1878, he read an account in the British Journal of Photography, of a new formula for an emulsion that eliminated the need to soak the plates. It was a “dry-plate.” He immediately threw himself into the idea of producing his own dry-plates as a way to make photography easier for himself. With absolutely no training in chemistry, Eastman proceeded by trial and error, avidly read all the photographic journals from abroad, and questioned anyone with more knowledge than him. While still working as a banker, Eastman tirelessly pursued his passion every day after work and into the wee hours. Within a couple of years, not only had Eastman developed a formula of ripened gelatin and silver bromide, but he also filed a patent for machine that could apply his formula on glass plates “in large numbers…with great rapidity and of better quality than is better than is practicable by handwork.” His patent filing reveals his early vision for the photographic industry -- one based on standardization and mass-production, rather than one rooted in custom hand-made production as it still was at the end of the 1870s. In 1880, Eastman established the “Eastman Dry Plate Company” to manufacture and sell dry-plates. Eastman’s new business started to grow as word got out about the high quality of his dry-plates.

Initially, Eastman’s dry-plates targeted the professional and the sophisticated amateur. Highly motivated and skilled, these two groups, in Eastman’s mind, “valued photography as something between a challenging craft and art form.” But Eastman’s instincts told him that, with the right technology, a very different and much larger class of customers could emerge. He sensed the great possibilities of a mass market populated by people who had absolutely no interest in the technical or artistic challenges of photography. Instead their only desire would be to visually record every aspect of their personal lives. Step by step, through the 1880s, Eastman’s business was building up all the technical components needed to transform photography into an activity requiring little or technical no skill. Finally, in 1888, with all the technical components in place, the Eastman Dry Plate & Film Co., as his company was now called, launched the product that revolutionized photography.

The “Kodak” camera was a simple, small box camera that came with a pre-loaded roll of film of a 100 shots. At $25, it was not cheap. But it provided the convenience for which the middle class was willing to pay. The advertisements for the Kodak camera proudly proclaimed: “Anybody can use it.” With the Kodak, Eastman proclaimed, “photography had been reduced to a cycle of three operations: pull the cord, turn the key, and press the button.” But it was Eastman’s idea of offering a service to process the film negatives and produce the prints that gave the camera greater mass appeal. Gone were the chemicals, the developing and printing equipment, and the dark rooms. Instead, for $10, the user of the Kodak could simply ship the camera directly back to the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Co. in Rochester, where the camera’s 100 negatives would be developed. The company would then mail back the prints along with the camera fully loaded with film and ready to go. The brilliance of this business strategy was captured in the marketing slogan, “you press the button, we do the rest.” The Kodak camera became all the rage and rapidly spread through middle class America. In 1892, the company was renamed the Eastman Kodak Co. During the next hundred years, the company grew into a global industrial giant with an impressive list of innovations in film and imaging. The Kodak brand had become a global icon.

Digital technology brought an end to film photography for the consumer market, and the collapse of the Kodak corporate empire. And yet, ironically, Kodak was a pioneer in CCD camera technology. It all started in 1974 with a 20-second conversation between Steven Sasson, an electrical engineer working in the R&D lab of Kodak’s Apparatus Division, and his boss Gareth Lloyd. Fairchild had just introduced one of the first CCDs to the market. The search for a solid-state replacement for the vidicon, the video camera tube, animated much of the interest in the CCD in the early 1970s. But it was seen as long-term undertaking. The Fairchild CCD was far from being of use for commercial video cameras. So the immediate commercial utility of Fairchild’s CCD was still unclear. Lloyd asked Sasson to explore the utility of the CCD to Kodak’s operations. Could it be used in any way, perhaps as a measuring tool in manufacturing? In Sasson’s words, this was a “filler project”-- an open-ended project with no goals. Sasson decided that building a camera to take photos was the best way to explore the characteristics of the CCD. Other than the $100 to buy the Fairchild CCD, he had no budget. He could only use spare parts laying around at Kodak. A year later, in 1975, he and two part-time technicians succeeded in building a device that took black & white digital pictures, stored them on digital cassette tape, and played them back on a television. Weighing in at 8 lbs. the camera was rather large. The CCD could only produce images 0.01 megapixel in size. But it was the first digital camera. For this achievement, President Obama presented Sasson with the National Medal of Technology, in 2010.

Kodak middle management did not know what to make of Sasson’s digital camera. They thought it was “too far out for serious considerations.” Compared to film, its images were crude and no one, including Sasson, had any idea when this technology could ever produce images to rival film quality. Management was convinced that no one would want to view images on a television. But more importantly, management could not envision how the digital camera could be made to fit into any portion of Kodak’s operations. Middle management never let Sasson demonstrate the digital camera to the company’s top executives. In fact it was nearly three decades later when company made the story public. In the 1980s and 90s, as CCD technology improved, Kodak management believed that the market for digital camera would be the professional photographer. The company devoted a lot of R&D to digital imaging technologies, all for the purpose of producing high-end products. With these R&D efforts, Kodak amassed the single largest pool of intellectual property tied to imaging technologies. And yet, in all these efforts, very little thought was given to the mass consumer market. For Kodak, its long-standing and highly profitable film-based business still responded to the average consumer’s needs. By the time, Kodak realized the error of this assessment, it was too late.

In 2013, just 125 years after George Eastman put the revolutionary Kodak camera on the market that launched the Kodak business empire, the company was forced to auction off 1,100 of its patents as part of bankruptcy proceedings. These patents dealt with image capture, manipulation and sharing technologies. A consortium, which included companies like Google, Microsoft, and Apple, was interested in buying up these patents. The auction produced far less than the $2 billion that Kodak had hoped for. Part of the problem was that the many of these patents were of dubious value to the consortium, because Kodak was already licensing them to competitors like Samsung and HTC.

George Eastman’s genius lay in seeing the enormous business potential in democratizing photography; making picture taking very simple and affordable. “You press the button, we do the rest” was the foundation of the company’s business model. In the 21st century, with the Internet, social media, cheap and small digital cameras, and the introduction of CCDs into cell phones, the process of democratization expanded dramatically. “We do the rest” no longer had any relevance. All around the world, even in the poorest areas, people were snapping countless pictures and displaying them instantly. But of more profound significance, people wanted to share them in real-time across the globe. It’s no longer about memorializing “Kodak moments.” It’s now about sharing the “Kodak moments” with the world.

Further Reading

Carl W. Ackerman, George Eastman (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1930). This biography was authorized by George Eastman.

Elizabeth Brayer, George Eastman: A Biography, (Rochester, NY: Rochester University Press, 2006). This a reprint of the book first published in 1996 by John Hopkins University Press.

Douglas Collins, The Story of Kodak, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc Publishers, 1990)

Henry C. Lucas Jr. and Jie Mein Goh, “Disruptive technology: How Kodak missed the digital photography revolution”, Journal of Strategic Information Systems, 18 (2009), 46-55.

Steven Sasson’s public lecture at the Linda Hall Library