A Brief History of the Eastman Kodak Company
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If you want to see the repetitious nature of business in history, read a history of Eastman Kodak sometime. It's very easy to see the analogies between Kodak and Microsoft and any number of other corporations that began as a tiny player in a cottage industry and ultimately emerged as king of the sea.

Around 1880, George Eastman was a young man in Rochester, New York with a promising career in banking; but he had great ambition and he wanted to run his own business. At this time the state of the art in photography was the wet-plate process: cameras used glass plates with the light-sensative material painted on the surface, which was then exposed while the glass was still wet. The results were good but it was labor intensive and inconvenient. Eastman, by purchasing a patent and some work of his own, patented a "dry plate" process where glass plates were coated with a light-sensitive emulsion that could be used dry. This meant that the plates had a viable shelf-life, which meant they could be manufactured in quantity, sold, stored and used without preparation. This was the first step toward mass-marketing photography.

He founded "The Eastman Dry Plate Company" (which would eventually become The Eastman Company), sold plates, licensed his process, purchased more patents and invested the profits back into the company to develop new products. His biggest fundamental achievement was next: the coating of light-sensitive emulsion onto a clear flexible material, which would later become known as film. By winding film between spools, a photographer could take multiple shots quickly and easily and process them in bulk. This was the next big step toward mass-marketing photography.

Eastman's next big move to was to sell a camera that would use his film. He wanted something simple, something that did not require training in f/stops and exposure times and focus. Most importantly, he wanted a unique name for the camera, a word that did not exist in any language; this way it could be trademarked and legally defended. The result was Kodak, which he named the camera, and he put it up for sale in 1888.

The Kodak camera was a sealed, self-contained camera. In an era when cameras were very large, mounted on tripods or tables, had adjustable lenses and recorded images on large plates, the Kodak was a revolution. It was small and hand-holdable, did not require the user to set apertures, shutter speeds or focus, and it came loaded with a 100-exposure roll of film. The user simply made the exposure and cranked the spool to the next piece of unexposed film. When all the exposures were done, the owner sent the camera to Eastman, which would develop and print the film, and return the prints with the camera loaded with a fresh roll. They marketed the camera with the slogan, "You Push the Button and We Do the Rest."

It was also relatively inexpensive, which made it a mass-market product. Prior to this, cameras were big, expensive pieces of equipment that could only be justified by professionals or wealthy amateurs. But the Kodak could be purchased and used by the masses.

The success of the Kodak really launched the company. The Eastman Company used their profits to refine the camera and create new models. They quickly abandoned the factory-return aspect and sold film by the spool and made cameras that could be easily loaded by the user. They cut prices and sold the camera as cheaply as reasonably possible because their bread and butter came from film and print sales. The Kodak was such a huge success that Eastman eventually changed its name to The Eastman Kodak Company, popularly known simply as Kodak.

By the close of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th the amateur camera market exploded, and many tiny camera makers produced Kodaks of their own. Competition was fierce and consolidation rapid. Eastman bought companies that owned patents that it wanted, fiercely fought competitors and acquired many of the ones it couldn't kill. But one of its biggest moves was to undercut the competition and further expand the mass-market. It created the simplest, cheapest camera it could possibly make, then purchased the rights to use the popular cartoon "Brownies" as a marketing gimmick. It called the camera the Brownie and marketed it to children, hoping to get them interested in photography at an early age and, at the same time, sell more film and prints. The Brownie was priced as cheaply as possible so that they could afford it.

Outside the original Kodak, the Brownie would become Eastman's most famous product line. Instantly and wildly popular, the simple little cameras sold in huge numbers and became many people's (including many professional photographers') first cameras. They were never very capable, but they were like a child's tricycle—a first step.

As the 20th century progressed, Kodak's huge success made it dominant in the US and an important player worldwide. At its peak it would have a presence at all niches of photography. It sold the cheapest, simplest cameras (e.g. Brownies and Hawk-Eyes); it had a presence in the middle and upper-ends of the market (e.g. Chevrons and Retinas); it sold professional view cameras, excellent view camera lenses (Commercial Ektars), accessories of all kinds, and the film, papers, and darkroom equipment to process it on both amateur and commercial levels. It had its hands in amateur, professional, medical, scientific, and nearly every other form of imaging.

But Kodak took its lumps as well. It had the chance to buy out its arch-rival Ansco at a time when Ansco was weak, and Kodak skipped the chance, preferring to crush it instead; then they lost an important patent battle to Ansco, which Eastman would come to regret. In the 20s Kodak settled anti-trust suits with the Government to avoid harsh penalties; Kodak had to spin off its prestigious Folmer & Schwing division, which made Graflex cameras. In the 1970s it lost another important patent battle against Polaroid, effectively killing its participation in the instant-picture market. The 80s and 90s found it losing ground in its core business, making film, in its home country to Japanese Fuji. And while it had been a major player in the home-movie market during the film days, Kodak had no presence at all in the videotape and camcorder revolution of the 1980s. As the millenium approached, Kodak looked like it would become a railroad or steamship company—a famous name in a now marginal technology.

As the millenium turned, however, Kodak wholeheartedly embraced the digital camera revolution, successfully branding itself with a number of digitals, both digital and professional; and accessories such as Flash cards; it has been dropping marginal markets like B&W while continuing to sell color film, printing services, and disposible cameras.

©opyright by James Ollinger. All Rights Reserved.

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