George Eastman, a young American bank clerk, became interested in photography in 1877. He bought a wet-collodion setup, took lessons from a local professional photographer and soon became dissatisfied with the messy and cumbersome process. As a result, his entrepreneurial efforts were fueled by a compulsion to continually improve the science of photography and to broaden its appeal towards the common man, “to make the camera as convenient as the pencil.”

George Eastman (1854-1932)

When he read in The British Journal of Photography of Bennett’s method of ‘ripening’ gelatin emulsions, Eastman decided to try out the new process. He was so successful that he decided to go into business as a dry-plate manufacturer, using a plate-coating machine he devised and patented in 1879. His first commercial dry plates were sold in 1880, through E. & H. T. Anthony, the leading American photographic supply house. In 1881 the Eastman Dry Plate Company was formed and Eastman left the bank to work full time in his new venture.

After surviving early setbacks the business prospered and he began to look for ways of simplifying photography. One of the major difficulties was the manipulation of the heavy, bulky and fragile glass plate; for the tourist, the weight of a number of plates could be an unnecessary burden. Using the gelatin emulsion, Eastman coated a paper negative material which, after development, was made translucent by waxing, as in the earlier Calotype process. He also recommended treatment with hot castor oil. Unlike earlier paper processes, the new material was very sensitive and was sold in sheet sizes suitable for most plate cameras, in which it was used with appropriate adaptors. In 1884 William H. Walker, a camera maker, joined Eastman’s organization, and together they developed a rollholder suitable for attachment to any standard plate camera. Patented in 1885, the Eastman-Walker Roll Holder employed interchangeable parts, making mass production possible. The device featured paper-based gelatin emulsion film wound around a wooden spool, stretched across a flat plate to a take-up spool - all fitted inside a wooden case which attached to the back of a camera in place of the normal glass-plate holder. The paper negative could be wound on after each exposure by turning a key and an audible signal indicated when enough had been wound.

Kodak Camera Image of George Eastman Aboard Ship Using a Kodak Camera

There had been earlier attempts to use paper rolls in the camera, one of the earliest patented in England in 1854 by J.B. Spencer and A.J. Melhuish. Their device used sheets of Calotype paper gummed together and wound on rollers but it did not come into general use. L. Warnecke’s roller slide of 1875 was more successful, carrying a 100-exposure length of paper coated with a dry-collodion sensitive surface. Although the apparatus was quite sound mechanically, the sensitive material was not satisfactory and no great use was made of the system. The Eastman-Walker rollholder, well made and with paper negative film of consistent quality, was immediately successful when it was launched in 1885. Soon after, an improved negative material was introduced under the name ‘American Film’. A gelatin emulsion was coated upon a layer of soluble gelatin, which had been coated on a paper base. The paper provided a firm and flexible support for the emulsion during exposure and development of the negative. After soaking the processed ‘film’ in warm water the image could be stripped from the paper base, and in a series of operations it was transferred to glass or gelatin sheets for subsequent printing in the normal way. The new ‘stripping’ film combined the advantages of the lightness and convenience of paper during exposure with the transparency of glass during printing.

The combination of the lightweight sensitive material and the efficient rollholding mechanism was eagerly adopted by many photographers but Eastman was still not satisfied. He felt that photography was still too complicated; not only the exposing but also the processing and printing had to be carried out by the photographer, involving skills and resources not possessed by everyone. Although some ‘detective’ cameras were reasonably compact, the majority of cameras were bulky and inconvenient. He decided to construct a camera which would be small and simple to use, embodying the rollholder principle. His first efforts resulted in a joint patent with F. M. Cossett, in 1886, for a ‘Detective Camera’. It was of box form, accepting either a plateholder or Eastman-Walker rollholder. Designed for hand use, it had an ingenious internal shutter. An example was shown at the St Louis Photographic Convention in June 1886 and by the following year 50 had been made, but Eastman decided against making more. The construction was too complicated and thus the cost was too high. In 1888 Eastman sold a job lot of 40 to a dealer for $50 each and turned to a new design. Patented in March 1888, the new camera was again of box form, with an integral rollholder. It was small - three and three-quarter inches high, three and a quarter inches wide and six and a half inches long - easily held in the hand. The rollholding mechanism took a roll of stripping film long enough for 100 circular exposures two and a half inches in diameter. An ingenious cylindrical shutter was cocked by pulling a string, and fired by pressing a button. The ‘film’ was wound on by turning a key, a rotating indicator showing when enough had been wound on.

To launch the new camera Eastman invented the trademark ‘Kodak’ - distinctive, not readily misspelt, pronounced similarly in most languages and unlike any other trademarks. Eastman also provided a complete developing and printing service. In England, through an organization established by Eastman in 1885, the Kodak camera was sold for five guineas, ready loaded with a 100-exposure stripping film. When the owner had made his hundred pictures the camera was posted back to Eastman’s factory. Here the film was removed and the camera was reloaded and returned immediately to the customer. The negatives were developed and printed, and, with the cardmounted prints, returned to the customer in about 10 days. The complete service, including the new film, cost two guineas. The user no longer needed to get involved with messy chemicals, and no darkroom was needed. Although the instruction manual included full details on loading, unloading and processing of the film in the darkroom, most people preferred to return the camera to the factory. Eastman launched the camera with the now classic slogan, “You press the button, we do the rest”.

The camera was easy to use, even for a beginner. By choosing a small negative size Eastman was able to employ a lens of short focal length, with a consequent greater depth of field. As a result no focusing adjustment was necessary, and everything from a few feet to the far distance was sharply recorded. Snapshots were possible only in bright sunshine but time exposures for indoor photography were possible with some manipulation of the shutter. No viewfinder was provided but sighting lines were impressed into the camera top to indicate the field of view. There was no exposure counter and since the camera held a 100-exposure film it was vital to fill in the memorandum book provided so as to keep count of the pictures taken.

1888 Kodak Camera

Launched in June 1888, the camera was an immediate success. People who had never before taken a photograph were able to make successful pictures. However, Eastman was still not satisfied with the sensitive material. The stripping film involved costly and time-consuming operators. For some time Eastman had employed a chemist, Henry M. Reichenbach, to search for an acceptable substitute, as flexible as paper, as clear as glass and tougher than either. Such a material was found in celluloid cellulose nitrate. This synthetic material was invented by the Englishman Alexander Parkes in 1861 and initially called Parkesine. Between 1855 and 1873, Parkes and Americans John and Isaiah Hyatt had spearheaded development, using a mixture of oils and gums, and eventually camphor, as a solvent for nitrocellulose, seeing it initially as a substitute for ivory in products like dominoes and billiard balls.

The material was not, however, made in a form sufficiently clear for photography until the 1880s. In 1888, John Carbutt, an Englishman who emigrated to the United States and worked as a professional photographer, saw potential in the products of the Hyatt’s Celluloid Manufacturing Company and wanted to expand on their innovation. The Hyatt brothers had patented procedures to manufacture large clear blocks of celluloid, and a slicing machine that could produce uniform sheets of celluloid as thin as 0.01 inches. In Carbutt’s innovation, these sheets were then pressed between heated metal plates to remove the slicing marks. The sheets could then be coated with light-sensitive gelatin emulsions similar to that used with glass dry plates. This resulted in thin, light, tough and moderately flexible substitutes for heavy, brittle glass plates. As much as this was appreciated at the time, these celluloid films were still too thick to be readily rolled.

By dissolving cellulose nitrate in alcohol Reichenbach was able to make thin sheets by pouring the ‘dope’ onto glass-topped tables to set. The resulting film was very thin, but it was too brittle to be easily rolled. Reichenbach found that by using several additives he could produce a thin, flexible and perfectly clear film. The process was patented in April 1889 and by the summer of that year transparent celluloid films for the Kodak camera and the rollholders were in production. The film was made by ‘casting it on long plate-glass-topped tables. When set the celluloid was coated in situ with gelatin emulsion; when dry the film was stripped from the tables, cut to size and rolled. It was the first commercially produced transparent rollfilm.

In October 1889 an improved version of the camera was introduced with a modified shutter; it was called the Number 1 Kodak camera to distinguish it from a new and larger model, the Number 2, taking a three and a half inch circular negative. The following year five more larger versions were sold, two of them folding models, and all using the darkroom-loaded celluloid roll- films. In an attempt to reduce the inconvenience caused by the need to load the camera in the dark, Eastman introduced in 1891 three models which could be loaded in the light. The a, b and c Daylight Kodak cameras took a roll of celluloid film enclosed in a carton, with a length of black paper or cloth at the beginning and end, to protect the film from light when loading and unloading. This was an improvement, but not as much of an advance as Eastman wanted. Snapshot photography was still not easy enough.

Typical Kodak Circular Print

The introduction of the Kodak cameras, supported by a developing and printing service, had brought photography to thousands who had never before attempted the process. Before snapshot photography could become really popular, however, two major disadvantages had to be overcome. First, the need to expose as many as a hundred pictures before the film could be returned for processing could lead to waste or loss of interest, and a simpler method of loading, to enable the user to load shorter films when required, was needed. Secondly, the cost was still high; the price of the first Kodak camera, five guineas, represented a considerable sum. Eastman looked for ways of reducing the cost and complication of snapshot photography. He found the answer in a camera sold by the Boston Camera Manufacturing Company in 1892. The ‘Bull’s-Eye" camera incorporated an invention, patented by Samuel N. Turner, in which a length of celluloid film was attached at one end to a longer length of black paper, which protected it from light when wound on a spool. White ink numbers printed on the black backing paper could be read through a window of red or yellow celluloid in the camera back. By winding the film from number to number a precise length of film was moved on for each exposure, while the black paper provided sufficient protection for the film to be loaded and unloaded in daylight. In 1894 Eastman arranged a licence with Turner to use the “cartridge’ film system (so named for the resemblance of the rollfilm to a shotgun cartridge, and for its ease of loading). The first Kodak rollfilm camera appeared in 1895. It was a tiny box camera, two and seven-eighths inches wide by two and a quarter inches high by three and seven-eighths inches long, taking pictures one and a half inches by two inches on a 12-exposure rollhlm. It was called the Pocket Kodak camera and mass-production techniques applied to its simple design enabled Eastman to sell it for one guinea. Immediately it became a bestseller. Although small, the negatives were capable of enlargement and yielded high-quality prints. Eastman purchased outright Turner’s title to the invention in 1895 and production began on other cameras using the cartridge rollfilm, including a new version of the ‘Bull’s-Eye’ camera. To increase the picture size without a great increase in the overall size of the camera a new folding model was designed and introduced in the autumn of 1897. The Folding Pocket Kodak camera was the first of a range of folding cameras of a design that was to remain in use for over 60 years. To cater for the more experienced photographer, in 1897 Eastman also introduced the first of a range of larger format models - the Cartridge Kodak cameras. These had a more advanced specification and in the hands of a skilled photographer were much more versatile than the straightforward box cameras.

Eastman was still concerned about the cost of photography; although the one-guinea Pocket Kodak camera had been very popular, it was still beyond the reach of millions who wanted take photographs. In particular, Eastman wanted a camera sufficiently inexpensive and simple to use that would be suitable for children. A new model was developed, designed by Eastman’s camera maker, Frank Brownell (and, perhaps, named after him); it was first sold in 1900 as the Brownie camera. A simple box camera, it cost five shillings, and took pictures two and a quarter inches square on the cartridge rollfilm. Like the original Kodak camera it had sighting lines impressed into the top to help in aiming, although, for an extra shilling, an accessory reflecting viewfinder was available. This simple camera and the family of cameras which evolved from it were the introduction to photography for millions throughout the world, including many men and women who became leading photographers of this century.

The popularization of photography which began in 1900 with the introduction of the Brownie camera was to be of considerable social significance. For the first time the snapshot album provided the man in the street with a permanent record of his family and its activities. The importance of this to the family is reflected in the sudden increase in sales of cameras and photographic materials during the First World War. Although the introduction of the simple camera has been criticized for having led to the production of millions of ’non-creative’ images, this argument misses the point of the value of these family archives, not only to the people concerned, but also to the social historian. For the first time in history there exists an authentic visual record of the appearance and activities of the common man made without interpretation or bias.

The great success of the simple rollfilm camera had a considerable influence on the development of other branches of photography. Although the plate camera was to remain in popular use for the first quarter of the twentieth century, more and more photographers turned to rollfilm cameras and a great variety of makes and models became available. Plate camera makers attempted to compete by developing box cameras carrying a dozen or more plates preloaded in the darkroom but by comparison with their rollfilm counterparts these magazine plate cameras were heavy and cumbersome. The rapidly growing market for photographic goods encouraged the development of new apparatus and materials and photographic manufacture changed from a cottage industry to one of mass-production in a matter of a few years.

1900 Kodak Brownie Camera & Box

By 1900 the basis of (pre-digital) modern photography had been established; there has been no fundamental change in the chemistry of the process since the gelatin dry plate was introduced and no materials as sensitive or as versatile as the salts of silver were found. Of course, photographic materials have greatly improved; rollfilms are available today with almost 300 times the sensitivity of Eastman’s first celluloid rollfilm. Improvements in the quality of the sensitive material permit the use today of very small negatives capable of great enlargement. In 1900 any camera taking negatives less than four and three-quarter inches by six and a half inches was considered to be something of a miniature. That is over 72 times the area of the pictures produced in today’s pocket cameras. The fundamental principles of colour photography had been proposed and demonstrated by the turn of the century, following the demonstration of the first colour photograph by James Clerk Maxwell in 1861; several methods of producing colour transparencies and colour prints were in use. But all needed considerable manipulation, skill and experience; the era of the simple colour snapshot was more than a generation away.

Although in the last 120 years cameras have become increasingly versatile and compact, few incorporate basic features which were not in existence or at least foreshadowed at the beginning of the century. There would appear to be a departure from traditional methods in the recent application of electronics to camera shutter design but even here the complex circuitry is performing tasks similar to those carried out in the past by gears, springs and levers. New glasses have significantly improved lens quality in recent years but many modern camera lenses are based on designs first proposed in the last century. Even the modern ‘instant picture’ cameras have their counterparts, albeit primitive ones, in a number of cameras in use in the middle of the last century, in which all the chemical operations of sensitizing and processing were carried out inside the camera.

The first practical motion pictures, inspired by the pioneer work of Muybridge and Marey and made possible by the introduction of Eastman’s transparent celluloid film in 1889 were publicly shown in 1893 in Edison’s Kinetoscope viewing machine; by the end of 1895 the Lumiere brothers of Lyons were projecting moving pictures to paying audiences. Within a year cinematography was practised throughout the world. Recorded sound combined with the moving picture had been demonstrated by Edison in America in 1896; the first colour motion picture followed only 10 years later.

The evolution of photography from the first shadowy, impermanent images made by Wedgwood to the introduction of the simple camera within the reach of all took almost exactly 100 years. During that time photographers, often coping with inadequate materials and imperfect apparatus, produced some of the finest photographs ever made. Their surviving images illustrate the evolution of creative photography that accompanied the technical development of the photographic process.