Eastman was born in Waterville, New York, to Maria and George Eastman. His father passed away when George was only 7, and his mother had little savings. They began taking on boarders, and George soon dropped out of high school and took on a job as an errand boy at a local bank.
By 1875, Eastman had become junior bookkeeper at Rochester Savings Bank and had accumulated a meager amount of wealth. In 1877, Eastman branched out and invested in some real estate. To make more careful investments, Eastman bought a professional photographer's kit: camera, tripod, glass plates, a nitrate bath, a plate holder, and a dark-tent. "The bulk of the paraphernalia worried me...," said Eastman, who had to pay a photographer for lessons on how to use the equipment.
When Eastman bought his camera, American photographers primarily used "wet plates" to take pictures. They would dip their glass plates in chemicals until an emulsion formed on which light could be transferred. Eastman thought this was a terribly inefficient way to go about things, and when he read about a new British process with pre-dipped plates (called "dry plates"), he had a business idea.
Eastman began producing dry plates, and by 1880, had hired 6 employees and was sending out over 4,000 plates every year. He found a distributor in E & H.T. Anthony, and he spent hours every night trying new emulsion formulas for his dry plates.
As Eastman's dry plate technology expanded, so did competition. By 1885, Eastman was ready to take his business in a new direction. He invented a roll holder and a paper form of his dry plates. It won several technical awards, but in general did not sell well.
Eastman was now at a crossroads: professional photographers thought his roll holder was cumbersome, and his paper film of low quality, and they were all very much invested in the glass dry plates of the 1870s. His only profits came from developing the film sent back to him via his paper film. How would he make his money? An idea struck.
He hired Bausch and Lomb (the actual two guys!) to build him a small optical lens, a local cabinetmaker to produce the body, and a machinist to create the 1/8 second shutter. By 1888, Eastman unleashed his camera, which he had named the Kodak.
Over 13,000 Kodaks were sold the first 2 years, and 60,000 in the 2 after that. Priced at $25, the camera was rather expensive, but it was a smash sensation across America, causing one newspaperman to declare it "as convenient as a pencil."
In 1885, a New Jersey reverend by the name of Hannibal Goodwin had been experimenting with celluloid film. He successfully petitioned for a patent on his emulsion formula, but in 1887 Henry Reichenbach, Eastman's chemist, independently discovered a formula to make the transparent film work in the Kodak. He filed for a patent, and although Goodwin sued, the Kodak was a large success. However, this would be the last of Eastman's successes for awhile.
By 1899, Kodak was worth over $50 million, and Eastman himself was a millionaire several times over. He continued to improve Kodak's stance in the market, releasing the Brownie, a camera for children that only cost one dollar, and helping in the development of mobile cameras for movies.
Eastman also became something of a philanthropist, donating $20 million to MIT, and $10 million more to the University of Rochester to form the Eastman School of Medicine and Dentistry. He also helped open hundreds of free children's dental clinics throughout the nation.
George Eastman, 77, committed suicide with a self-inflicted gunshot. At the time he was the 6th wealthiest man in the United States. He had donated over $100 million to charity, and his company continued to grow each year, developing faster, more reliable, and better ways to take pictures. Without Eastman's marketing and dogged tenacity, the ease of photography might never have come to pass. And although Eastman's suicide note read, "To my friends: my work is done. Why wait?" there is much to be said about his work. He gave all of us the ability and opportunity to capture our memories and our dreams in the most vivid and lasting way possible.
One often unstated fact about Eastman is that he was homosexual. In the late 19th century, this was a major taboo and thus Eastman never went public with his orientation. However, his private correspondences and general accounts of Eastman confirm that he was not really an eligible bachelor after all.