The Kodak Man: How George Eastman Got His Start

“The manifest destiny of the Eastman Kodak Company is to be the largest manufacturer of photographic materials in the world,” said Eastman, “or go to pot.”

George Eastman came from a poor family and dropped out of high school after being deemed “not especially gifted,” but that did not stop him from creating what would become one of the most successful imaging companies in the world. He overcame his beginnings to launch a business that would put the powers of photography into the hands of the average person and change the way the world remembers itself.

Eastman was born on July 12, 1854 in Waterville, New York. He was the youngest of three children to George Washington Eastman and Maria Kilbourn. His father was a modestly successful businessman who spent his time running a nursery. When Eastman was five years old, his father sold the nursery and moved the family to Rochester, where he opened his own Eastman Commercial College. Just two years later, however, Eastman’s father died, and along with him went his college.

The Eastman family realized that they were now broke. In just a few days, the young Eastman went from being relatively well-off to penniless, and although he was only seven years old, he knew it. In order to support her family, Eastman’s mother began opening her house to travelers who needed a place to stay. Eastman, however, did not like seeing his mother clean and cook for strangers, and decided to do something about it.

He dropped out of high school and took on a job at his local bank, working as a messenger. It paid just $3 a week, but it was a start. Soon, Eastman began working for a local insurance firm, where thanks to his initiative, his pay was increased to $5 a week. He gave that money to his mother to help pay for the family’s expenses. Of particular importance was looking after his sister, Katie, who was incapacitated due to polio. Despite his efforts, Eastman would lose his sister to the disease when she was 16 years old.

After five years of working in insurance, Eastman left to work as a junior clerk for the Rochester Savings Bank. With a new salary of $15 a week, Eastman began to think about taking a vacation. He had always wanted to visit Santo Domingo. But when a coworker suggested he make a record of his trip, Eastman’s plans quickly changed.

Eastman bought a wet-plate photographic device, the standard for his day. He quickly realized, however, that there was no way he would be able to bring it with him on his trip. “The bulk of the paraphernalia worried me: a camera about the size of a soapbox, a tripod, which was strong and heavy enough to support a bungalow, a big plate holder, a dark-tent, a nitrate bath and a container for water,” he said. Calling the entire package a “pack-horse load,” Eastman said, “I could do nothing with my first outfit until after I had paid a professional photographer...five dollars to give me lessons.”

After learning how to use the camera, Eastman thought there must be a simpler way to take pictures, and he set off to find it.

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