George Eastman: Genius and Tragedy

George Eastman: Genius and Tragedy

When one succeeds in the world they invite as many detractors as they do friends. That is the price to be paid for success. George Eastman was no exception. He had been scrutinized for the better part of his life and as he grew older had severe spinal problems along with chronic depression. These ailments led to his suicide in 1932.  He was quoted as writing “My work here is done, why wait.” Why wait indeed.  With a man in such agony, and undergoing public scrutiny, it can be understood why he felt the way he did.  Perhaps had the world had more gratitude for him then he wouldn’t have gone out this way. To tell the story of Eastman requires us to tell the story of an entire medium and how he helped shape it into what we take for granted today. Though along the way there are many tragedies and unfortunate mishaps that took place.

Suicide note via Tumblr

Sometimes genius and an eccentric personality go hand in hand. Known as G.E. by his friends, George Eastman was that type of person. Though a life of genius, money, and fame is not necessarily a life well spent. Eastman suffered from depression, was never married, and had constant struggles with lawsuits and colleagues among many other things. Sometimes we have to find our own happiness and make less of what we have and focus more on what we can do. Despite Eastman’s wonderful accomplishments, his genius, and his strong and determined work ethic, these were the last things on his mind. He believed that how we lived in the moment and enjoyed life determined more for us than what we earned in our lifetime.  He once said: “What we do during our working hours determines what we have; what we do in our leisure hours determines what we are.”

On the job he was a tireless worker involved with many aspects of his company. His investments in his company nearly put him in bankruptcy in his earliest years. Though he deduced that initially the company’s reputation was more important than the revenue one generated.  Even if it required putting the company in financial jeopardy reputation was still the most important thing.

He was extraordinarily invested in his company, but had a passion for leisurely activities. He had a strong affinity for music, the arts and was an avid traveler as well. As his interest in his company lessened he used traveling as something to fill the void. By the 1920’s he went on six month vacations away from the company. His affinity for music is well known by many. He was a stickler for perfection with his house musicians. Eastman would ring a buzzer if they did not show up promptly, he would notice if the quartet ended a couple minutes early.  He was indeed a perfectionist with how music was played always finding something inadequate. His passion was so deep that he was something of a compulsive perfectionist. He seemed to find a greater passion in finding problems and mistakes with the musicians he hired than trying to find passion and enjoyment in the actual music.

via wiki commons

His passion for making an affordable cheap and economically feasible product helped photography become a commodity for the working class. As an entrepreneur he singlehandedly industrialized photography by making it more affordable to working class consumers. The once technical and monotonous process of photography could now be as simple as pressing a button on a handheld camera in order to take a picture. As he put it, “You press the button we do the rest.” Eastman believed in making a master photographer out of the ordinary amateur and his product allowed for anyone to produce their own collection of photographs.

It wasn’t just the industrialization of photography that made him such a prophetic visionary, it was his ability to create a universally recognized brand through his own inventiveness.  One would think that a name like Kodak has a personal meaning or was inspired by something Eastman witnessed in his life. However, he admitted it was a gimmick and just came out of thin air and a fascination with the letter ‘K.’ The name Kodak wasn’t based on anything but was strictly to help with brand recognition more than anything else.  Eastman stated: “I devised the name myself. The letter ‘K’ had been a favorite with me — 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.’”

Accomplishments aren’t based predominantly on an idea you have but rather what you can do with it and where you take it. The greatest accomplishment of Eastman was his ability to recognize a potentially successful idea when he saw it. It was stated by many that Thomas Edison’s greatest invention was his publicity and this could be applied to Eastman in a lot of ways. It isn’t the idea but the ability to package and market it into something that made him into a visionary. Neither celluloid nor roll film were inventions of George Eastman’s. Eastman bought the patent for roll film from Peter Houston, a Wisconsin farmer who developed the material in 1881. However flexible roll film had not been fully developed until pastor Hannibal Goodwin made transparent flexible roll film. That was how the creation of celluloid film took place in 1887.

Houseton showing Eastman roll film via George Eastman House

What proves ironic is that Eastman knew what purpose and commercial potential these inventions could have better than the creators themselves. Goodwin’s motive to create celluloid was focused exclusively on creating a non-breakable substance that could be utilized for images that he could use for his Biblical teachings. That Eastman saw celluloid for a broader range of purposes beyond Goodwin’s intent shows how much of a master businessman Eastman was. However, like most things, Eastman successes were still met with controversy.

With success comes controversy and Eastman was no exception. Eastman landed in hot-water with a company called Ansco in 1914. That company bought the patent rights from the inventor Goodwin and accused Eastman of patent infringement. Eastman’s new business struggled with the legalities of ownership and patent infringement. It’s not easy for innovators, for every endeavor pursued in any industry there is a likely chance of getting in legal hot water.

George’s public reputation wasn’t free of scrutiny either. Sometimes being successful and innovative attracts detractors and cynics. With success comes the heavy burden of the press and public always trying to take you down a peg. While Eastman’s downtime and leisure hours were filled with a personal affinity for music and traveling, a secretive romance developed that was concealed from the public. He was intimate with a woman named Josephine Dickman, following the death of her husband George Dickman. Eastman in many ways displayed a deep infatuation for the woman as he persistently courted Josephine, often having her rendezvous with him in his mansion. For a man that claimed he was too busy with his business to be intimate with any woman, Eastman seemed very close and infatuated with this one, especially after the death of his mother Maria Eastman.

Josephine Dickman via

Among other controversies surrounding Eastman was the growing unpopularity of the monopolistic business practices at the turn of the 20th Century. Monopolistic practices like his were becoming more and more controversial and thoroughly examined by the press and public.

Eastman also had to deal with increasing resentment in his own home town. There were rumors about his private life and personal relationships. According to Marion Gleason, a George Eastman family friend, Eastman had been loathed by some of the people of Rochester because of rumors, and despite the city greatly benefiting from him. That Marion asserts that Eastman was unpopular is shocking. It’s surprising because of his philanthropic attitude towards his hometown. He sold a third of shares in his company and gave them to his employees, which was worth over 10 million at the time. How could such an altruist have a reputation like that? Does success make people envious? Was he not doing enough? His legacy seems to create a lot more questions than it does answers. It does appear that one of Rochester’s greatest minds was disliked by many of his contemporaries. Perhaps it was because society tends to grow resentful and distrusting of those who are too successful or as complex as Eastman. Perhaps the world’s sense of entitlement makes it difficult for us to understand how generous and benign Eastman was.

According to Marion Gleason’s account, it was argued that much of the public holds unfavorable opinions of the rich and privileged and feel these individuals have an obligation to be generous and philanthropic. Marion stated, “people unconsciously resent being grateful and under obligation to dispensers of favors, especially if they are rich and powerful.”

Eastman is a fascinating but peculiar individual. He believed in giving back to the community but was a control freak when it came to ownership of patents and valuable properties in the movie business. His entire life could be summed up by one word: control. He oversaw every aspect of his life from writing the company’s ads, the construction of his estate, and the organization of the Kilbourn Quartet which played at his estate. He tried to monopolize an entire industry, had paternalistic attitudes to the lower class and people of other races. Eastman was always secure when he was in charge of things and had control. His debilitating spinal disease put a dent in his ability to control his life and the people around him. Perhaps the key to his success was his controlling nature and when he couldn’t do that anymore, his work was indeed done.