Milestone: After 117 years, Kodak stops making cameras

Kodak founder George Eastman tests one of his early cameras aboard a ship in 1890. By 1900, Eastman introduced the world-changing Brownie camera, priced at $1 each. That marketing is in keeping with Kodak’s famous slogan: “You push the button, we do the rest.”THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 9: Mark this milestone in your journals, note it in your blogs and newsletters—the creative force that made modern media possible has stopped making cameras for the first time in 117 years. KODAK announced on February 9, 2012, the end of camera production (and the end of its pocket video cameras and digital picture frames). One more media giant has failed to adapt to the emerging digital media that it helped to create and is foundering on the rocky shores of Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Is this an over-the-top way of describing this milestone? In one word: No. Consider …

By the mid 1880s, George Eastman (Kodak’s founder) owned the U.S. Patent to his greatest development: roll film. He also quickly consolidated ideas from a number of American inventors so that Eastman controlled and produced America’s first inexpensive cameras for roll film. Prior to that time, photography depended on cumbersome plates made of various rigid substances. Eastman’s innovations opened the floodgates to everyday photography. On a larger scale, his roll film allowed other inventors, especially Thomas Edison, to launch the American movie industry. Kodak so completely dominated these emerging fields of media that 80 of the American movies that went on to win the Best Picture Oscar were shot on Kodak film.

Hollywood wasn’t the only place where Kodak pretty much owned the entire photographic market. In a widely cited Harvard Business School report on Kodak, the year 1976 is identified as one peak in Kodak’s fortunes. In that year, Kodak produced 90 percent of all film sold in the U.S. and 85 percent of all cameras.

One myth floating around the Internet this week is that Kodak ignored digital photography. On the contrary, a Kodak engineer named Steven Sasson invented the digital camera. Perhaps digital photography was inevitable, given the direction of modern science, but Kodak was at the opening gate of this new era. In fact, Sasson opened the gate for Kodak and the rest of the world. The Kodak digital-camera patents were awarded between 1974 and 1976. Unfortunately, innovators in the rest of the world raced far beyond Kodak with the processes the media giant introduced.

Yes, news reports on Kodak over the past week all cite the company’s far-too-complacent assumptions about film and traditional cameras. Much like the too-complacent assumptions of American newspaper moguls, which sidelined newspapers as the dominant force in news media around the world, Kodak let its virtual monopoly on American photography slip away. Some news reports say that the Kodak decision to let Fuji film sponsor the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics was a key tipping point. Certainly, Kodak’s failure was obvious by 2009, when the company ended production of Kodachrome film after 74 years.

Today, Kodak is trying to stave off complete disaster by focusing on its home-printer technology, according to business reports over the past week. Whether Kodak can survive 2012 is still a serious question. After all, the company already seems to have wrung dry the possibilities for large court settlements with competitors, based on its legacy of patents over the past century. That settlement money now is gone, too.

One possible solution? Kodak may become the Colonel Harland Sanders of the media industry. At this point, lots of companies around the world are eager to get their hands on that Kodak name and logo.

Want to strike a positive blow on the new-media frontier? Check out ReadTheSpirit’s newest book release, this week’s publicaiton of Our Lent, 2nd Edition. In a short supplement to the new edition, ReadTheSpirit Publisher John Hile writes: “ReadTheSpirit Books produces its titles using innovative digital systems that serve the emerging wave of readers who want their books delivered in a wide range of formats—from traditional print to digital readers in many shapes and sizes. This book was produced using this entirely digital process that separates the core content of the book from details of final presentation, a process we have developed that easily increases the flexibility and accessibility of our books.
Interested in that next-wave development of digital production for small publishing houses? Email us at [email protected] and ask to talk with our publisher, John Hile. After two years of software development by Hile, Our Lent 2nd Edition is the first book we have produced with our newly complete digital workflow. We welcome questions from other interested professionals.

Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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