Profiles in Greatness: George Eastman

George Eastman’s prospects as a young man did not look especially promising. Growing up in Rochester, N.Y., in the 1860s, he was not a stellar student. In fact, his public school teachers did not think him particularly skilled or gifted, and he dropped out of high school at age 14 to help support his widowed mother and two sisters. Eastman began his career as an office boy at an insurance company, earning $3 a week, then moved up to work as a clerk at a bank. Imbued with strong organizational and management skills and a penchant for inventiveness, he rose quickly through the ranks and by his mid-20s had saved enough money to start his own business, which would become known as the Eastman Kodak Company.

“The progress of the world depends almost entirely upon education.”

Eastman was initially inspired to enter the field of photography in 1878, when he planned a trip to Santo Domingo, purchased photographic equipment to make a record of his trip, and found the camera size, the wet plates, chemicals, heavy plate holder and other accoutrements of this “hobby” ridiculously cumbersome. He wanted to simplify the photographic process and saw the potential for starting a business.

Working for $15 a week at the Rochester Savings Bank during the day, Eastman spent his nights researching and experimenting with ways to develop a dry plate formula to make photography easier. His mother claimed her son worked so hard that he was often too tired to get undressed at night and fell asleep on the kitchen floor. But after three years of experimentation, Eastman came up with a formula that worked and, by 1880, had patented a machine for developing dry plates in large numbers.

“We were starting out to make photography an everyday affair, to make the camera as convenient as the pencil.”

Eastman was on his way. He opened his own company and learned quickly the value of reputation in business. After a number of the dry plates he had made and sold to dealers went bad, Eastman recalled and replaced them at his own expense, almost sending his fledgling company into ruin. He said, “Making good on those plates took our last dollar, but what we had left was more important—reputation.”

Gradually, Eastman began experimenting with ways to eliminate heavy glass plates, eventually coming up with what we know today as film: paper coated with photographic emulsion and then rolled into a holder. “When we started out with our scheme of film photography, we expected everybody who used glass plates would take up films,” Eastman said. “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.”

“Photography is thus brought within reach of every human being who desires to preserve a record of what he sees… and enables the fortunate possessor to go back by the light of his own fireside to scenes which would otherwise fade from memory and be lost.”

Eastman took full advantage of advertising his “Kodak” camera, which went on the market in 1888. This very simple, handheld box camera included a 100-exposure roll of film. After the customer used up the film, he sent the whole camera back to the manufacturer for developing, printing and reloading for a fee of $10.

The easy-to-use camera was a huge hit. Kodak ads at the end of the 19th century could be found everywhere—in newspapers and periodicals, many of them written by Eastman himself. It was he who coined the slogan, “You press the button—we do the rest.”

Eastman’s company was among the first to mass-produce its products and maintain its own chemical laboratory with a research and development team focused on continuing innovation. Among the new products were a pocket Kodak, a folding camera, noncurling film and color film. By 1927, the Eastman Kodak Company had something close to a monopoly on the U.S. photographic industry.

“What we do during our working hours determines what we have; what we do in our leisure hours determines what we are.”

Eastman understood early on that his success was dependent on the hard work, inventiveness and happiness of his employees, and his ideas on management were way ahead of his time. He wanted his employees to feel ownership in his company, and in 1899, he gave every employee a bonus out of his own pocket. Eventually, he set up a “wage dividend” program that paid each employee a bonus directly proportional to the yearly dividend on the company’s stock. Eastman believed profit sharing was essential to maintaining the good will and work ethic of his employees, two things he considered critical to the ongoing success of his business.

In 1919, Eastman presented his employees with a third of his own holdings in the company stock, an amount equaling $10 million in those days, and he was also among the first to establish a retirement annuity, as well as life insurance and disability benefit plans. One of Eastman’s early biographers, Carl Ackerman, wrote that the creator of Kodak had a “social philosophy, which he practiced in building his company” that was “far in advance of the thinking during his lifetime.”

“If a man has wealth, he has to make a choice because there is the money heaping up. He can keep it together in a bunch and then leave it for others to administer after he is dead. Or he can get into action and have fun while he is still alive. I prefer getting it into action and adapting it to human needs and making the plan work.”

By age 77, Eastman was plagued by increasing disability due to the hardening of the cells in his lower spinal cord and was frustrated by his inability to continue leading an active and useful life. After putting his estate in order, he committed suicide on March 14, 1932, leaving behind a note to his family and friends that read, “My work is done. Why wait?”

Indeed, the legacy he had built was extraordinary. Apart from his advancement of the field of photography and his acute awareness of the importance of employee satisfaction to company success, Eastman was also a well-known philanthropist and considered giving back an essential component of a meaningful life. In fact, he began giving money to nonprofit organizations when his salary was only $60 a week.

As his business grew and he acquired greater prosperity, so grew his philanthropic endeavors. Among the institutions to which he contributed were the Rochester Institute of Technology; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to which he ultimately gave $20 million; the Hampton and Tuskegee Institutes; dental clinics in Rochester, London, Rome, Paris, Brussels, and Stockholm; the Eastman School of Music; and a medical school and hospital at the University of Rochester. By the end of his life, Eastman had given away some $75 million.

Leave a Reply