George Eastman was born in 1854 in Waterville, the youngest of three children and the only son of a successful businessman George Washington Eastman and his wife Maria Kilbourn. His father died in 1862 when Eastman was just seven, leaving the family destitute. In the drastically changed circumstances, with three children to bring up, his mother was forced to take in boarders and scrub and cook for them. Then, just a few years later one of his sisters, who suffered from polio, died. The shock of these two deaths and the adversity in which they now found themselves forged a very close, strong bond between mother and son.
At the age of 15, in order to support the family finances, George Eastman was obliged to drop out of school and seek employment. He had already shown an aptitude for making money as he was growing up, making little toys and selling them to his contemporaries. Now he found himself a job as an office boy and revealed an ambitious streak. He had bigger plans for himself and so, on the side, he began a campaign of self-improvement - learning to dress well, to dance, and to continue his studies part-time, and, last but not the least, to record every single dollar he earned and spent in carefully maintained ledgers.
At the age of 21, in 1875, he had advanced himself to the position of a junior book-keeper at the Rochester Savings Bank. He kept his ears open and soon gathered from the dealings of the various prosperous clients that real estate was a viable business option. He decided to use his hard-earned savings in investing in land himself. It was in this context that he became involved in photography. He wanted to photograph a property he was considering and so bought the cumbersome photographic equipment that was prevalent in those times - 'a camera about the size of a soapbox, a tripod, which was strong and heavy enough to support a bungalow, a big plate holder, a dark-tent, a nitrate bath and a container for water', as he put it. And, of course, he didn't have the faintest clue about how to use all of this - after several fruitless experiments he paid a professional photographer five dollars to teach him.
Almost overnight, photography became a grand passion for him and soon he began experimenting in it and corresponding with other amateur as well with professional photographers, bombarding them with questions on techniques and methods, and becoming as proficient as was possible.
There was just one thing that bothered him, and this was the whole awkward aspect of Wet Plate photography. It didn't make life easy hauling along everywhere with you the heavy photographic equipment, the glass photographic plates, and the chemicals that were required to develop them, especially when you were keen on photographing the great outdoors. Surely there had to be an easier way. He soon discovered that there indeed was. In his enthusiasm for his new hobby, he had subscribed to a British Photography Magazine and, when the very first issue was delivered to him, he read in it about British Photographers advocating the new and not as yet heard in the USA process of 'Dry Plate Photography' in which the glass plates came pre-coated and so saved the photographer all that bother of coating them with chemicals on the spot every time.
George Eastman attempted developing such dry plates himself and then succeeding, invented a machine for coating the plates. With a bravado that was typical of him, he decided to go England and see if he could strike up a business deal with the inventors of the dry plate technique. He was received with astonishment, but his idea was listened to. However no business deal was struck and he returned to the US.
Back home, he came in contact with a leading New York photo supply store, the Anthony Company, and they commissioned him to provide them with pre-coated glass plates. It was January 1881, and Eastman formed the Eastman Dry Plate Company with a $1000 capital from Henry Strong, whose family had once lodged with his mother and become close friends. He made Henry the President and he himself became the Treasurer, since this gave him a financial control and thereby overall control of the company. George knew what he wanted―control and power, public prestige was quite secondary in his scheme of things. These self-appointments both turned out to be long-lasting sound decisions that were to keep the two men good friends and see the company safely through all ups and downs over the years. Harry, a charming extrovert, was great at attracting clients and George, a taciturn introvert, was great at getting the best deals out of them. They set up shop in a single room above a music shop in the financial district of Rochester. George, an energetic, tireless individual, worked in the Bank in the mornings and then, around three, cycled over to the workshop and stayed up late perfecting the plates. This state of affairs continued until he was passed up for a well-deserved promotion at the bank in favor of a relative of the bank manager. George, angered, resigned and decided to devote himself full-time to the business. Many of his acquaintances considered this a foolhardy gesture - he would have got by later on at the bank and by now he had severe competition in the photographic business - from people who, unlike him, had an in depth knowledge of Chemistry and were coming up with plates better than his.
George, undaunted, hired a young chemistry student called Henry Reichenbach and set him about to improving emulsions and business improved. Then he decided that glass plates in themselves were a liability - heavy and breakable - they needed to be replaced by something more convenient. He came up with the idea of emulsion coated, rollable paper and a roll holder that could be attached to the camera. It was a great idea and proved to be a critical success at a London Exhibit in 1885. However, practically, it was another story - the emulsion coated paper gave a very poor grainy image and professional photographers didn't fall over themselves in buying his invention.
This was a major business setback, but George recouped and decided that if he couldn't attract the professionals he would try his hand with the amateurs, with a camera that absolutely anyone could operate and carry around. He had it built to his specifications, putting in his roll holder invention and a shutter capable of taking pictures in a fraction of a second, and hiring some newly immigrated German opticians named Bausch and Lomb to make the lens. George next invented a name for it - Kodak. When it was marketed in 1888 with the slogan 'You push the button, we do the rest', it proved to be tremendous commercial success. Suddenly everyone could take photographs and of course they all wanted to. And after taking a hundred photographs, all they had to do was return the camera to the Eastman Company and several weeks later they received the prints, mounted on cards, and their camera with a new roll inside. Without needing to muddle around with nasty chemicals like in the old days, photography now became everyone's favorite hobby.
With luck on his side, George Eastman decided to go International and opened a series of Kodak stores in Europe. The London office was initially overseen by his associate William Walker, who incidentally had been a co-inventor with the roll-holder. Later, however, differences arose between them and the management was turned over to the suave and more capable businessman, George Dickman. Mr.Dickman and his wife Josephine, who was a trained singer, were a sophisticated couple that Eastman had met through Walker in 1889 and become close friends with.
Around this time, Eastman had a falling out too with his chemist Reichenbach. The company had just patented a transparent celluloid film to replace the paper one and found themselves in a patent dispute over this with another inventor, Hannibal Goodwin. Eastman opened a new film producing company regardless and hounded Reichenbach to fulfill certain quotas in a specific time. The latter, fed up, resigned and formed a rival company. After him, Eastman hired and fired one chemist after another until he found William Struber. This individual, in 1894, came up with the type of quality emulsion film that Eastman had wanted all along. It made a conspicuous improvement in the quality of the photographs taken.
On 15 November 1898, George Dickman, who had undergone an abdominal surgery a few days earlier, died. That very day, ironically, George Eastman's dream, the Kodak Limited Company, with a worldwide monopoly became a reality. Two years later he pushed up profits with a camera more affordable to the masses, the Brownie.
Now one of the wealthiest men in the USA, he bought his mother a thirty-seven-room mansion with extensive grounds and a staff of forty. With all his other concerns he still managed to ensure in fine detail that this too was run on precisely managed lines. The household finances, entered by the housekeeper into ledgers on his insistence, were audited every year by his public accountants. Every morning, at exactly 7.30 a.m., his personal organist Harold Gleason humored him with his favorite music at breakfast. The same sort of exactitude went into the many holidays he took, or rather organized, chalking the itinerary of each of his guests to such an extent that it was actually neither fun nor relaxing to be holidaying with George Eastman.
In 1907, Eastman's mother died, devastating him completely. His close relationship with Josephine Dickman deepened after this, but, despite many speculations about them marrying, he remained a life long bachelor. He mellowed somewhat though and became interested in Philanthropy. He gave huge donations to MIT, the Hampton Institute, the Tuskegee Institute, and the Rochester University, creating the Eastman School of Music at the latter. He opened the Eastman Theater in Rochester, with a chamber-music hall, the Kilbourn Theater, in his mother's honor.
He retired from the Eastman Company in 1925 and kept himself busy with extensive travel and other pursuits. On March 14, 1932, at the age of seventy eight, he made a new will and shortly afterwards committed suicide by inflicting a single gun-shot. He had been ill with a debilitating illness for sometime and had no wish to linger around as a bedridden invalid. For someone who had aimed for perfect self-control throughout his life, this was simply unthinkable. The note he left behind read, 'To my friends, My work is done. Why wait?'