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The Business of America

“You Press The Button, We Do The Rest”

June 2024
5min read


It is an axiom that one technology replaces another only because the new technology is better or cheaper, or both. A century ago the automobile, despite its high cost, replaced the horse and buggy in a matter of two decades because even the primitive automobiles of the day were faster, safer, and more versatile and reliable than the horse. After Henry Ford came along, they were also cheaper.

Today electronic technology is replacing mechanical technology for the same reasons. One major American industry now rapidly going electronic is photography. Instead of having film store information by means of changes in light-sensitive chemicals, a light-sensitive computer chip stores it electronically. This information can then be transferred to a computer and viewed instantly on the monitor. The pictures can be stored in the computer as well as printed out. And digital photography is much cheaper than film photography. There’s no film to buy and no development costs.

Once the software has been mastered, images can be manipulated in endless ways, not to mention sent off to Grandma by e-mail. But the software that comes with digital cameras, or that can be bought separately, is a problem. It is complex and intimidating to anyone who is not a techie. The instructions are often opaque with jargon and undefined terms.

The brand-new digital camera industry should take a look at the history of popular photography in the nineteenth century and especially at the man who made it popular, George Eastman. Photography was one of the seemingly miraculous developments of the first half of the nineteenth century that gave the Victorians such a profound sense of progress. For the first time in history a moment could be captured forever. And because photography was far cheaper than the technology it began to replace—that is, the human artist—people of ordinary means could for the first time preserve images of themselves, their friends and families, even their pets.

What ordinary people couldn’t do, however, was take photographs themselves. Even after the faster wet collodion process had replaced competing technologies by the 1860s, photography was a complex, expensive, and messy business. The market for photographic equipment was therefore restricted to professionals and very serious amateurs.

Photography was at this stage of development when an up-and-coming young businessman from Rochester, New York, named George Eastman, began taking an interest in the subject. Eastman had been born on a small farm near Waterville, New York, on July 12, 1854. The panic of 1857, the ensuing depression, and an attack of inflammatory rheumatism sent his father’s career into decline, and in 1862, when George was eight, his father died, leaving the family with debts. George’s mother had to take in boarders to make ends meet, and the Eastmans seem to have been depressed not only financially but emotionally. “I never smiled until I was forty,” Eastman recalled years later.


That, surely, is a considerable exaggeration, for Eastman led a notably active life and had no trouble making his way in the world. Although he left school after the seventh grade to get a job at three dollars a week, he was an avid reader, and new things always interested him. By the time he was 15, he was earning six dollars a week, a very good wage for an adolescent.

At 21 he had a job at the Rochester Savings Bank that paid him $1,000 a year, a middle-class income. In 1877 he was prosperous enough to plan a trip to Santo Domingo, and he bought a camera to take along, paying $49.58, according to his meticulously kept personal accounts. He got more than just a camera. Indeed, he also got, according to a letter he wrote in 1891, “a tripod, plus plates, paper, boxes for storing negatives, and a tent that he could set up as a darkroom, also the furnishings of a small chemistry laboratory—nitrate of silver, acetate soda, chlorides of gold, sodium, and iron, collodion, varnish, alcohol....” To learn how to use all this paraphernalia, he spent five dollars taking lessons.

As chance would have it, just as Eastman was learning the wet collodion process, photography was taking one of its great technological leaps. Dry plates, in which the light-sensitive chemicals are suspended in a thin coating of gelatin, could be stored until needed and stored after exposure until processed. Most of the stuff Eastman had had to buy with his camera would no longer be necessary.

He read about the new process in an article in the March 1878 edition of the British Journal of Photography , to which he had subscribed just the previous month. It was almost a eureka moment for the young man. He at once began tinkering with dry-plate emulsions for his own use, and he quickly realized that while wet plates could only be assembled as needed, dry plates could be manufactured. He decided to do exactly that.

He consulted George Monroe, who had given him his photography lessons, and also, crucially, George Selden. Selden was one of only two amateur photographers in Rochester at the time. More important, he was also a first-rate patent attorney (in 1895 he would exploit weaknesses in the patent law to obtain a patent on the idea of the gasoline-driven automobile, an invention that in fact had hundreds of fathers. One of them, Henry Ford, would break the patent in 1911.)

George Eastman, who was still working full-time for the Rochester Savings Bank, soon developed an emulsion formula that he thought superior to any then available and created a machine for coating glass plates with it. He began manufacturing dry plates in a loft over a music store and made about $4,000 selling them in 1879 and 1880. The next year he quit his job and went to work full-time running the Eastman Dry Plate Company.

Glass, heavy and delicate, had numerous drawbacks as a substrate for light-sensitive chemicals. Plus, a fresh plate had to go into the camera for each exposure, requiring elaborate mechanisms to avoid exposing it to light during the loading and removal. Research was under way in many places to find a replacement for glass, centering on the use of nitrocellulose, or film, which was not only much lighter than glass but could be rolled around a spool, allowing multiple exposures be-fore reloading.

Eastman and his coworkers realized that the keys to success in the photographic materials business would be film, the equipment needed to manufacture it, and the roll holder around which it would be wound. Eastman bent all his company’s efforts to developing the best in each category, patenting everything in sight as he did so.

He was soon a major player in the aborning business of photographic materials. But that was nevertheless a very small market. The average person still regarded photography as a miracle, and many of the professionals clung to the old glass plates. So Eastman decided to create a whole new market. “When we started out with our scheme of film photography, we expected that everybody who used glass plates would take up film,” he wrote much later. “But we found that the number which did so was relatively small. In order to make a large business we would have to reach the general public and create a new class of patron.”

In 1887 Eastman developed a new camera that he hoped would find a mass market. At a mere 6¾ by 3¾ by 3¾ inches, it was a small fraction of the size of the camera he had bought 10 years earlier, and it cost half as much. He named it the Kodak because he liked the letter K , wanted a name that both began and ended with it, and wanted a word that was unique and easily remembered.

Unlike that first camera of his, the Kodak came loaded with a roll of film that could take 100 photographs. Then the owner simply sent the camera and film back to Eastman, who returned it with the finished prints and a new roll of film in the camera. George Eastman had invented the photo-finishing business.

One more piece of the puzzle was needed to make photography a mass-market business. Eastman had to convince the public that it could handle what had always been a very complicated technology. He turned the trick with what is universally regarded as one of the greatest slogans in advertising history: “You press the button, we do the rest.” The new Kodak was a sensation, and George Eastman became fabulously rich.

Digital photography will never be as easy as Eastman made chemical photography, of course. There is too much you can do with it. But the first company writing software for digital cameras that takes to heart George Eastman’s most important idea for how to create a mass market—make the product easy to use—may find the world beating a path to its door.

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