George Eastman (July 12, 1854 – March 14, 1932) was an American innovator and entrepreneur who founded the Eastman Kodak Company and popularized the use of roll film, helping to bring photography to the mainstream. Roll film was also the basis for the invention of motion picture film in 1888 by the world’s first film-makers Eadweard Muybridge and Louis Le Prince, and a few years later by their followers Léon Bouly, Thomas Edison, the Lumière Brothers, and Georges Méliès.
He was a major philanthropist, establishing the Eastman School of Music, and schools of dentistry and medicine at the University of Rochester and in London; contributing to RIT and the construction of MIT‘s second campus on the Charles River; and donating to Tuskegee and Hampton universities. In addition, he provided funds for clinics in London and other European cities to serve low-income residents.
In the last few years of his life Eastman suffered emotionally, however was perfectly healthy. On March 14, 1932 Eastman shot himself in the heart, leaving a note which read, “To my friends: my work is done. Why wait?” The George Eastman House, now operated as the International Museum of Photography and Film, has been designated a National Historic Landmark. He was born in Waterville, New York to George Washington Eastman and Maria Eastman (née Kilbourn), the youngest child, at the 10-acre farm which his parents bought in 1849. He was largely self-educated, although he attended a private school in Rochester after the age of eight. His father had started a business school, the Eastman Commercial College in the early 1840s in Rochester, New York, described as one of the first “boomtowns” in the United States, with a rapid growth in industry. As his father’s health started deteriorating, the family gave up the farm and moved to Rochester in 1860. His father died of a brain disorder in May 1862. To survive and afford George’s schooling, his mother took in boarders.
The young George left school early and started working. As George Eastman began to experience success with his photography business, he vowed to repay his mother for the hardships she had endured in raising him. In 1884, Eastman patented the first film in roll form to prove practicable; he had been tinkering at home to develop it. In 1888, he perfected the Kodak camera, the first camera designed specifically for roll film. In 1892, he established the Eastman Kodak Company, in Rochester, New York. It was one of the first firms to mass-produce standardized photography equipment. The company also manufactured the flexible transparent film, devised by Eastman in 1889, which proved vital to the subsequent development of the motion picture industry.
He started his philanthropy early, sharing the income from his business to establish educational and health institutions. Notable among his contributions were a $625,000 gift in 1901 (equivalent to $17.7 million in present day terms) to the Mechanics Institute, now Rochester Institute of Technology; and a major gift in the early 1900s to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which enabled the construction of buildings on its second campus by the Charles River. MIT opened this campus in 1916.
He was also an avid traveler and music lover.