You Press the Button, We Do the Rest

Friday, October 24th, 2003

You Press the Button, We Do the Rest tells the story of George Eastman and the original Kodak camera:

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.
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 before 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 63/4 by 33/4 by 33/4 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.

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