George Eastman was named after his father, George Eastman Sr. He was born on July 12, 1854, in Waterville, New York. George Sr. had started a small business school, Eastman Commercial College, in Rochester, where he moved the family in 1860. But he died suddenly when George Jr. was 8. One of young George’s two older sisters was wheelchair-bound from polio and died when George was 16. George’s mother, Mary, took in boarders to support the family, and George dropped out of high school at age 14 to add to the family income. He began as a messenger and office boy for insurance companies and studied accounting at home to qualify for a higher salary. He eventually landed a job as bookkeeper at the Rochester Savings Bank.
When George was 24, he planned to visit Santo Domingo and, on the advice of a colleague, decided to document the trip. But the photography equipment alone was enormous, heavy and costly. He bought all the equipment, but he never took the trip. Instead he began researching how to make photography less cumbersome and easier for the average person to enjoy. After seeing a formula for a “dry plate” emulsion in a British publication, and getting tutelage from two local amateur photographers, Eastman formulated a gelatin-based paper film and a device for coating dry plates. He resigned from his bank job after launching his fledgling photography company in April 1880. In 1885, he headed to the patent office with a roll-holder device that he and camera inventor William Hall Walker had developed. This allowed cameras to be smaller and cheaper.
Eastman also came up with the name Kodak, because he believed products should have their own identity, free from association with anything else. So in 1888, he launched the first Kodak camera (a few years later, he amended the company name to Eastman Kodak). The company slogan was “You press the button, we do the rest,” which meant the camera was sent in to the company after the 100 exposures on the roll of film had been used; they developed it and sent it back to the customer.
He never married or had a family, citing being too busy and too poor when he was younger. He was an enthusiastic art collector on his long trips to Europe, and a music lover, establishing the prestigious Eastman School of Music
He was a major philanthropist, establishing the Eastman School of Music, and schools of dentistry and medicine at the University of Rochester and in London; contributing to the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) and the construction of several buildings at MIT’s second campus on the Charles River. In addition he made major donations to Tuskegee and Hampton universities, historically black universities in the South. With interests in improving health, he provided funds for clinics in London and other European cities to serve low-income residents. Although his company was essentially a monopoly for many years, Eastman was not the average corporate industrialist. He was one of the first American industrialists to embrace and implement the concept of employee profit sharing in the United States, and, in addition, he made an outright gift from his own money to each of his workers. In 1919, he added what is known now as stock options.
His generosity extended beyond his own business, as he gave to the struggling Mechanics Institute of Rochester, which became the Rochester Institute of Technology, as well as M.I.T. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). His high regard for education in general led him to contribute to University of Rochester, and the Hampton and Tuskegee institutes. “The progress of the world depends almost entirely upon education,” he said.
Dental clinics both in Rochester and in Europe were also a focus of his concern. “It is a medical fact,” he said, “that children can have a better chance in life with better looks, better health and more vigor if the teeth, nose, throat and mouth are taken proper care of at the crucial time of childhood.”
In all, it is estimated that Eastman contributed more than $100 million of his wealth for philanthropic purposes during his lifetime.
An avid cyclist, in his final two years, Eastman noticed a progressive immobility, the result of a degenerative condition that involved a hardening of the cells in the lower spinal cord. He also suffered from severe diabetes. Eastman was in intense pain caused by a disorder affecting his spine. So, on March 14, 1932, at the age of 77, he took his own life with a single gunshot to the heart, leaving a note which read, “To my friends: my work is done. Why wait?”
The George Eastman Museum, now operated as the International Museum of Photography and Film, has been designated a National Historic Landmark. Eastman is the only person represented by two stars in the Hollywood Walk of Fame in the same category, for his invention of roll film.