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Kodak developed family memories

February 19, 2012|By TIM ROWLAND |

George Eastman created photography for the masses in 1888, and in a bit over a year had hired four employees, including my great-grandfather, Carl Fisher. Which is why, in a sea of bankruptcies, I doubt my family would want me to let Kodak’s misfortune pass unnoticed.

Kodak might be the quintessential American technology company, and in an era when a decade is considered to be a good run for a tech start-up, Kodak was dominant for a century. Microsoft will still need to be a viable enterprise in 2095 to match Kodak’s longevity as it stands today.

Photography was more or less entering its 65th year when Eastman formed the Eastman Dry Plate Co. on the first day of 1881. But shooting photos remained in the hands of a skilled few, who possessed an understanding not just of light and exposure, but of chemistry and mechanics.

With the birth of Kodak in 1888, all the wizardry was reduced to a roll of flexible film that fit inside a box. You press the button, Eastman said, and we do the rest.

In a personal history compiled in 1940, Fisher said he was a member of a Sunday school class taught by the attorney who drew up Kodak’s incorporation papers, and at a gathering at the lawyer’s home he was introduced to Eastman.

He went to work in shipping, but as with most start-ups, the pay was not impressive. And a requested raise was not forthcoming. “Carl, you’re a good boy and a good worker and I like you,” Eastman said. “But if I give you another dollar, I’ll have to give Charlie Johnson a dollar, too, and I can’t afford it right now.”

Indeed, Eastman rode to his own plant on a bicycle — a high-wheeler at first, then on one of the first “safety” bikes — and his mother worked alongside Fisher. By 1859, Eastman was making enough of a profit that he still needed his mother to help, but at least he could hire a carriage for her to take to work. Also, he was no longer needing to wear out his suits, so she would package up his used clothes and send them to the poor.

The name Kodak itself was always something of a mystery. Eastman said he made it up for no particular reason, other than he liked the hard, distinctive sound of the letter K. In our family lore, however, there was more to it. Along with being distinctive, “kodak” was also similar to the sound made by the shutter on the original cameras. Ko-dak, ko-dak.

It might be plausible, since in the early days “kodak” had evolved into a verb, meaning to shoot pictures. Even so, Fisher remembered that the early technology was shaky, and “the lasting qualities of emulsion were not always dependable.”

The results way back then were similar to those we have all experienced — at least those of us who have ever used film. “One man,” Fisher recorded, “had purchased film for 100 exposures and had gone on a long and interesting trip through Europe, kodaking as he went. After the film had been returned, as the custom was then, to the factory and developed, the pictures turned out spotty and spoiled as a result of the deterioration of the film’s emulsion.”

Much of Eastman’s time in those days was spent skillfully smoothing ruffled feathers.

He was equally good at handling his own employees. He had an office manager who could be a bit hard on the boys — and who also stuttered. Once, when he heard his manager unfairly ripping into the young men, Eastman entered the room and barked a series of questions at the manager, who became too tongue-bound to give anyone any more trouble that day.

Fisher became the company’s special sales division manager and, according to a Kodak newsletter in 1954 after his retirement, “undoubtedly sold more cameras than any other man in the world.” He orchestrated wildly successful giveaways and coupons for cameras through banks and on cigarette packs. The revenue from camera sales was immaterial; Kodak made its money on film and developing.

I don’t know where Kodak goes from here. Somewhere, I hope, although it was easy to see from the beginning of the digital age that the company’s strengths would be undercut. What Kodak did to dry plates, digital cameras did to Kodak. No business lasts forever, no corporate icon can survive indefinitely. But Kodak preserved a lot of memories for me, so it is only fitting that I do what I can to preserve a few for Kodak.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is

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