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  • Writer's pictureRich Honiball

Today in Brand History: George Eastman and the Birth of Kodak

George Eastman camera patent
George Eastman camera patent (photo credit:

On September 4, 1888, inventor George Eastman received a patent for the camera shutter and the trademark for the Kodak name, marking a pivotal moment in the history of photography. This event not only revolutionized the way people captured and preserved their memories but also laid the foundation for the establishment of the Eastman Kodak Company, a name synonymous with photography and innovation.

George Eastman, founder of Kodak
George Eastman, founder of Kodak (photo credit:

George Eastman, the founder of Kodak. George Eastman was born on July 12, 1854, in Waterville, New York. Raised in a family that valued education and entrepreneurship, Eastman exhibited a curious and inventive nature from a young age. Facing financial challenges after his father's death at the age of 14, he left school to work and help support his family after his father's death. He did not attend college but continued to educate himself through self-study and practical experiences, learning valuable skills in mathematics and chemistry. George Eastman worked in various jobs to support himself and his family after his father's death. He started as a messenger and office boy at an insurance company in Rochester, New York. Later, he worked as a bookkeeper and clerk at Rochester Savings Bank. During this time, he also worked as a commercial photographer's assistant, where he gained valuable experience in the field of photography. It was his exposure to photography that sparked his interest in improving the photographic process and led him to develop innovations that would revolutionize the industry.

The Kodak Camera
The Kodak Camera (photo credit:

Invention of Roll Film and Portable Cameras: In the late 19th century, photography was a complex and cumbersome process, involving large and fragile glass plates. Recognizing the need for a more accessible and convenient method, Eastman set out to revolutionize photography. He introduced flexible roll film, which replaced glass plates and enabled multiple exposures without the need for constant reloading.

In 1888, Eastman unveiled the Kodak camera, a portable device loaded with his roll film. Unlike earlier cameras operated by professionals, the Kodak camera was designed for everyday individuals, allowing them to take their own photographs easily. The camera came pre-loaded with film and, after capturing 100 exposures, users sent the entire camera back to Eastman's factory for processing. This innovative approach democratized photography, making it accessible to a wider audience.

Eastman Kodak "Brownie" camera
Eastman Kodak "Brownie" camera (photo credit:

The Birth of Kodak Company: The immediate success of the Kodak camera propelled Eastman to turn his invention into a business. He founded the Eastman Kodak Company in 1892 and introduced the slogan "You press the button, we do the rest." This catchphrase captured the essence of his user-friendly approach to photography. Kodak believed in educating its customers about photography. The company organized workshops, classes, and instructional materials to help consumers improve their photography skills. This approach not only built customer loyalty but also established Kodak as a trusted authority in photography.

In 1900, the company introduced the Brownie camera, a simple and affordable device that played a significant role in popularizing photography among the masses. The Brownie camera's low cost and ease of use contributed to a surge in amateur photography. Priced at just one dollar, the Brownie camera made photography accessible to a wider audience.

Polaroid Land Camera developed with Kodak
Polaroid Land Camera developed with Kodak (photo credit:

Photography Advancements and Instant Photography: Eastman's commitment to innovation extended beyond black-and-white photography. Kodak's introduction of color photography through the Kodachrome film in the 1930s was another groundbreaking innovation. This move capitalized on consumers' desire to capture and preserve their memories in vibrant color, setting Kodak apart from its competitors.

This film became iconic for its vibrant and durable color reproduction, becoming a staple for professional and amateur photographers alike.

In the 1940s, Kodak introduced the Kodak Ektachrome film, enabling photographers to develop color slides in their own homes. However, one of Kodak's most notable innovations came in 1947 with the development of the first instant camera. The Polaroid Land Camera, jointly developed with Polaroid Corporation, allowed users to instantly develop photographs without the need for external processing.

Capturing a "Kodak Moment"
Capturing a "Kodak Moment" (photo credit:

Adaptation and Challenges: Kodak's relationship with Polaroid came to an end through a series of legal battles and lawsuits spanning several years. The conflict between the two companies began in 1976 when Polaroid filed a patent infringement lawsuit against Kodak. Polaroid alleged that Kodak's instant photography products, such as the Kodak Instant Camera, violated its patents related to instant film and camera technology. In 1985, a federal jury ruled in favor of Polaroid, finding that Kodak had indeed infringed on Polaroid's patents. As a result, Kodak was ordered to pay significant damages to Polaroid.

The legal battles and unfavorable court decisions took a toll on Kodak, both financially and in terms of its reputation. As a result, Kodak gradually phased out its instant photography products and shifted its focus towards other areas of its business. As the digital era dawned in the late 20th century, Kodak faced continued challenges in adapting to changing consumer preferences. The rise of digital photography disrupted the traditional film market. Despite being a pioneer in digital imaging technology, Kodak struggled to keep pace with emerging competitors.

Kodak's Legacy
Kodak's Legacy (photo credit:

Legacy and Impact: While today Kodak is a fraction of its former size, the company survives today primarily as a supplier of commercial printing solutions, chemicals/materials for the film industry, and niche photo printing products. Major revenue contractions in areas like photography and film led to its 2012 bankruptcy, but a refocus on core competencies in printing and chemicals stabilized the slimmed-down company. Kodak's brand retains consumer recognition, even if its business looks very different than its 20th century heyday.

Kodak and the Apollo Missions
Kodak and the Apollo Missions (photo credit:

Did You Know?

  1. George Eastman's Philanthropy: Beyond photography, George Eastman was a renowned philanthropist. He established the Eastman School of Music and the Eastman Theatre in Rochester, New York, contributing significantly to the arts and education.

  2. Connection to NASA: Kodak's contributions to NASA's space exploration efforts underscored the company's commitment to innovation. Kodak played a crucial part in documenting and advancing NASA'a understanding of the Moon and space. The images captured during the Apollo missions and subsequent missions inspiring generations to dream about the possibilities of space exploration. Kodak also provided materials for the containers used to bring back lunar samples from the Moon to Earth during the Apollo missions.

  3. Kodak's Role in Entertainment: Kodak's film technology had a profound impact on the entertainment industry, enabling the creation of movies, TV shows, and commercials. Kodachrome was the first widely available color film and quickly gained popularity for its vibrant and lifelike color reproduction while Kodak's introduction of 16mm and 8mm film formats brought filmmaking to a wider audience. These smaller formats made filmmaking more accessible, enabling amateur and independent filmmakers to create their own movies.

  4. Kodak's Cultural Influence: The company's iconic logo, featuring the word "Kodak" in bold red letters, became synonymous with photography itself and remains a recognizable emblem of the brand's legacy. The term "Kodak moment" became a cultural reference for capturing memorable experiences on film. It even led to the creation of a "Kodak Moment of the Day" feature in newspapers.


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