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| 2 minutes read

George Eastman's Patent for the Kodak Camera

In 1881, George Eastman, a former bank clerk from Rochester, New York, who grew fascinated with photography, formed the Eastman Dry Plate Company to sell gelatin-coated, glass plates that would capture an image when exposed to light. Dry plate cameras were more portable than earlier, wet plate cameras, but were still relatively bulky and required intricate knowledge and skill to use effectively.  Eastman recognized the need for a simpler, more user-friendly approach to photography. So around the same time, he began experiments to replace the plate with a flexible, photographic film and then sought to build a camera to hold and advance the film using rolls.

The Kodak Moment. Eastman's camera, which he branded “Kodak” (a term Eastman “invented out of thin air” that, along with Exxon and Xerox, are great examples of strong, inherently distinctive, and fanciful trademarks) was compact, lightweight, and remarkably easy to use. U.S. Patent No. 317,049, which issued in 1885 for a “Roller-Holder for Photographic Films,” describes and depicts Eastman's camera design that encloses two rollers for manipulating his flexible film. Unexposed film wound on the first roller, the “spool” (labelled “C” in the drawings), could be advanced and wound onto the second roller, the “reel” (labelled “D” in the drawings), after exposure by turning a key (labeled “E”). The patent explains how simple the camera was to operate:

The spool of film having been inserted in the holder . . . the operator passes the film over the support and attaches its end to the reel D by means of [a] clip. The holder is now ready to be used in making exposures in the camera. After each exposure the operator turns the key E until [a] spring warns him by the noise of its recoil that he has drawn a sufficient length of film from the spool.

An original Kodak camera, released in 1888 and shown here, is housed at the National Museum of American History.

Eastman's (Unpatented) Business Method. The simple, box design and low price certainly contributed to the Kodak camera's mass appeal. But Eastman's business model also helped to transform photography from a niche pursuit to a ubiquitous part of everyday life. The Kodak camera sold for $25 preloaded with enough film for 100 photos. After finishing the roll, the customer mailed the camera back to the factory to develop the prints for $10 (generating significant, high-margin, follow-on revenues for the company). The camera was then returned loaded with a new roll of film along with the negatives and mounted prints. Using the slogan “You Press the Button, We Do the Rest,” Eastman allowed anyone to capture memories, document adventures, and express themselves through a new art form. 

In a related next post, we'll look at Edwin Land's patent that taught us how to “shake it like a Polaroid picture.”

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