In 1888, inventor George Eastman invented a game-changing kind of dry, transparent, flexible photographic film that came in a roll. The film was designed for use in Eastman’s newly designed, user-friendly Kodak cameras. This innovative camera and film combination opened the pursuit of photography to a whole new breed of photographers, allowing amateurs to ply the craft alongside professionals with amazing and relatively easy to achieve results.
George Eastman, David Houston, and the Road to the Kodak Camera
George Eastman was an avid photographer who became the founder of the Eastman Kodak company. Eastman wanted to simplify photography to make it available to everyone, not just trained photographers. In 1883, Eastman announced the invention of a new kind of film that came in rolls.
Eastman was also one of the first American industrialists to employ a full-time research scientist. Together with an associate, Eastman perfected the first commercial transparent roll film, paving the way for the invention of Thomas Edison’s motion picture camera in 1891.
Eastman also bought the patent rights to twenty-one inventions related to photographic cameras issued to David Henderson Houston. Houston immigrated to America in 1841 from Glasgow, Scotland. While he earned a living as a farmer, Houston was an avid inventor who filed his first patent in 1881 for a camera that used a roll of film—which hadn’t been invented yet.
Houston eventually licensed his patent to the Kodak Company. He received $5,750—which was considered a magnanimous sum in the 19th century. Houston also licensed patents for folding, panoramic, and magazine-loaded cameras to Kodak.
Putting the “K” in Kodak: A Legendary Camera is Born
The Kodak Company was born in 1888 with the debut of the first Kodak camera. It came pre-loaded with enough film for 100 exposures and could easily be carried and handheld during its operation. “You press the button, we do the rest,” Eastman promised in the advertising slogan for his revolutionary invention.
After the film was exposed—meaning all 100 shots were taken—the whole camera was returned to the Kodak company in Rochester, New York, where the film was developed, prints were made, and a new roll of photographic film was inserted into the camera. The camera and prints were then returned to the customer, for the whole cycle to be repeated again.
A Camera by Any Other Name Would Not be Kodak
“A trademark should be short, vigorous, incapable of being misspelled,” George Eastman said, explaining the process by which he’d come to name his company. “The letter ‘K’ had been a favorite of mine. It seems a strong, incisive sort of letter. It became a question of trying out a great number of combinations of letters that made words starting and ending with “K.”
However, about the time Eastman was naming his company, inventor David H. Houston was living in the town of Nodak, North Dakota and the two men frequently communicated. According to Houston’s niece who wrote her uncle’s biography, the Kodak/Nodak connection, which came at about the same time Eastman bought his first patent from Houston, was likely not a coincidence.
(This is a photograph of Eastman’s Kodak Park plant, in Rochester, New York, circa 1900 to 1910.)
From the Original Kodak Manual—Setting the Shutter
Figure 1 is intended to exhibit the operation of the setting of the shutter for an exposure.
Figure 2 shows the process of winding a fresh film into position. In taking a picture, the Kodak is held in the hand and pointed directly at the object. The button is pressed, and the filming is done, and this operation may be repeated a hundred times, or until the film is exhausted. Instantaneous pictures can only be made outdoors in bright sunshine.
From the Original Kodak Manual—Indoor Photographs
If pictures are to be made indoors, the camera is rested on a table or some steady support, and the exposure is made by hand as shown in Figure 3.
The Kodak v. Polaroid Controversy
On April 26, 1976, one of the largest patent suits involving photography was filed in the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts. Polaroid Corporation, the assignee of numerous patents relating to instant photography, brought an action against Kodak Corporation for infringement of 12 Polaroid patents relating to instant photography. On October 11, 1985, five years of vigorous pre-trial activity and 75 days of trial, seven Polaroid patents were found to be valid and infringed. Kodak was out of the instant picture market, leaving customers with useless cameras and no film. Kodak offered camera owners various forms of compensation for their loss.