A prolonged fall: how Kodak took a mass photo and lost the market to a “digit”

The history of Kodak is the nightmare of any entrepreneur. A company with more than a hundred-year history, occupying a leading position in the photography market, is on the outskirts of business. The threat of bankruptcy, restructuring and a weak, barely perceptible pulse is the current reality of Kodak, which has been almost vegetative for the last six years. Founder George Eastmain and could not think where future managers will lead his company. 

The Pro job

Photography in a relatively familiar way for us emerged at the beginning of the nineteenth century, but even in the second half of the nineteenth century, the cameras and the process of making pictures remained the lot of professionals: that the camera, that consumables were expensive. Another problem – to shoot it was necessary to drag around almost a mobile laboratory, because to show the pictures had to be right on the spot: otherwise the chemistry on the plate dried up. George George Eastman did not like this very much.

Childhood of the guy was not asked: his father died early, there was practically no money and George did not even finish school – he had to look for part-time work. All the free time was spent on dispatching parcels and mail for the insurance company. Growing up, Eastman first dealt with registration of insurance policies, and then moved to the bank clerk. Knowledge was not enough, so after work he studied the nuances himself.


Oddly enough, the lack of education did not prevent the boy from showing himself well in the bank: he was promoted and everything turned out to be quite rosy – especially compared to the conditions in which the guy grew up. In twenty-odd years the clerk was going to go to the Dominican Republic and was planning to take a camera with him. But the device was so big that the idea had to be abandoned. This spurred George to study the photo gallery.

Starting a business

Eastmander mastered the complex process of creating and receiving a snapshot – and realized that everything could be done much easier. Interestingly, George did not really know chemistry: he studied a lot during the course. As a result, he developed a much more convenient “dry” material for photography – based on silver bromide and gelatin. The benefits of the invention are obvious, but money was required for production, and the young banker did not have them. To help came Henry Strong – a major businessman who donated about five thousand dollars (now it’s about $ 120 thousand). So the Eastman Dry Plate Company appeared. Like many businessmen, Eastman could not resist and called the company his name, but the real glory will bring a completely different name – taken from the bald.

In 1881, the guy established the production of dry plates by his technology – by that time there were analogs, but the version of the unknown Eastman liked the audience: sales were quite stable. Combining work in the bank and own business by that time was already difficult. The businessman decided to choose a business, although it turned out to be risky: things were not going very well, there were faulty batches of records, because of which a lot of money was spent on the re-release of products. Soon the company will be joined by an important person – inventor and photography enthusiast William Walker.

Together with him, the founder of Eastman Dry Plate Company came up with a revolutionary way at that time to obtain images: they replaced glass plates with paper, which can be folded with tape. This increased the convenience, but the chambers remained bulky and heavy. In addition, photographers did not hurry to switch to an unusual format for the film. It became clear that it was necessary to expand the audience, and for this it was required to release its apparatus. Eastmane was excited by the idea of ​​making a photo accessible to everyone – the main condition was convenience and ease of use.

The first Kodak camera. Image:

Photos are available for everyone

The device reached the stores in 1888. The buyers were intrigued by an unusual name – Kodak. It means nothing at all: the founder of the company was looking for a word that would not cause associations with something else, exclude the mistaken pronunciation and at the same time start with his favorite letter – “K”. The businessman perfectly understood that a person buys a camera once, but the pictures will do a lot. The financial model was built around the development of coils with a film. It was possible to do it yourself, but I would have to buy equipment and fiddle with the development. It is much easier for a small amount to send the film to the manufacturer and get an envelope with pictures that people did.

Business was going well. The bet on the mass buyer worked: no one wanted to delve into the methods of development. The slogan perfectly conveyed the idea of ​​an innovative camera: “You press a button – we do the rest . ” Gradually, the company reduced the cost of cameras: if the first model cost $ 25 (about $ 660), then came primitive devices in the form of a rectangular box for $ 5, or about $ 130 now. At the same time, another direction developed – films. By 1892 Eastman simplifies the name of the company to Eastman Kodak, and in 1900 appears the first model of the legendary series of budget cameras – Kodak Brownie cost only one dollar. It was a success: memorable moments of life became available to almost everyone.

For the next thirty years, Kodak has only been building up positions: new models, improved versions of films, company growth. However, the 75th anniversary of George Eastman met with problems. He was diagnosed with a serious disease – stenosis of the spinal canal. Two years later, in 1932, the businessman shot himself. The tragedy did not affect the company’s affairs: the positions of Eastman Kodak were strengthened, including thanks to military orders: the company supplied infrared film, fuses and other components ordered by the US Department of Defense. So it was until the seventies of the twentieth century.

Difficulties in adapting

In 1975 there was a revolution in the world of phototechnics. Engineer Eastman Kodak Steve Sasson finished 3.6-kilogram hulk with a sensor resolution – attention – 0.01 megapixels. It was the world’s first digital camera. Pictures are only black and white, the carrier was a film cassette. The company’s bosses did not appreciate the novelty. As Sasson later recalled , he was told: “It’s funny, but do not tell anyone about the camera . ” The problem was that Eastman Kodak continued to make the main cashier not on the apparatus, but on the film. Since the digital camera does not need it, then there is no point in developing it.

Steve Sasson and his digital camera. Image:

The company nevertheless undertook to develop this direction, but on a residual principle. But the prospects of the digital camera were seen by competitors, and Sony was particularly successful. But Eastman Kodak had a handicap for many years to come.

Eleven years after Sasson’s prototype, the company developed the first camera with a sensor resolution of one megapixel, and in 1996 a model with the Advantix Preview system appeared. The technology took half a billion dollars. The key advantage: after the shutter is clicked, the images can be viewed. But I had to output images all the same through the film.

Eastman Kodak was taken hostage to his business: management did not ignore the digital segment of cameras, but could not completely switch to it – this would mean a gradual curtailment of the release of films, due to which the company lived. The change of landmarks would have resulted in colossal costs, but now one can argue that it was necessary to take risks in any case.

Occupied in 1993, the post of head of the company, George Fisher recalled that then in the company’s walls, digital cameras were perceived negatively – in a new direction they saw not an opportunity, but a threat to business. The release of additional products, such as printers, too, was not particularly successful, besides there were enough competitors.


Eastman Kodak developed digital cameras as an alternative, not a replacement for film models. At the beginning of zero, the company held a leading position in the market of consumer cameras, but still could not discard the film. Competitors in the meantime were less sentimental and much more flexible – Japanese Sony, Canon, Nikon and Fujifilm were catching up very quickly. Plus a new blow – a mobile photo that developed fantastically fast. For a couple of years there were phones with flashes, video support and quite bearable image quality. For typical home photos no longer needed a separate camera, and to show photos there was no need: after all, you can see from the device. The Eastman Kodak business was getting worse: since the nineties, the sale of patents, which rivals have pounced on, began.

It was hard to believe in what was happening: the leader in his field with a hundred-year history could not figure out where the industry is heading, although their employee showed the same future – and did it in 1975, having developed the world’s first digital camera. In 2012, Eastman Kodak declared bankruptcy. By that time, its shares were practically worthless: about 36 cents per unit. But soon the company announced its return: it closed its debts and restructured. Now Eastman Kodak develops solutions for industrial printing of images and 3D printers.

Back to top button