When world-renowned Kodak inventor George Eastman invited a small group of close friends to his home on March 14, 1932; he wanted them to witness the rewriting of a new will.

It wasn't an unusual moment in the life of the 77-year-old man from Rochester, New York, who was known as "the father of photography" due to his achievements with Kodak and making photography easy and accessible for everybody.

Eastman was also a shrewd businessman who liked to be in control, and he wanted to make sure his financial affairs were in order, reports news.com.au.

A highly respected philanthropist, Eastman stated in his will the majority of his fortune would be left to the University of Rochester, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Rochester Institute of Technology.


His fortune included his $2.8 million house (about $48 million today), as well as a huge amount of cash.

He was incredibly close to his niece, Ellen, so he left $280,000 for her (about $2.2 million today).

The night was said to have ended on a relatively cheery note, with Eastman telling his friends he was just making sure his final wishes were in order.

When his friends left, he took out a fresh piece of paper and wrote a note to them.

Then he took a gun from a drawer in his bedside table and shot himself in the chest.


Eastman was born in Waterville, New York, on July 12, 1854, the son of George Eastman senior who founded "Eastman's Commercial College" and his wife Maria who looked after the couple's three children.

According to Eastman's official biography, life for the middle-class family was thrown into turmoil when Eastman Sr died suddenly of a heart attack in 1862 when Eastman Jr was only seven. With his mother now a widow and Eastman's sister Katy suffering from polio, life became incredibly difficult for the family. (Katy died of complications related to polio in 1870 and was buried beside her father.)

Eastman Kodak Company founder George Eastman (left) and Thomas Edison pose with their inventions in the 1920s. Photo / AP
Eastman Kodak Company founder George Eastman (left) and Thomas Edison pose with their inventions in the 1920s. Photo / AP

His mother was forced to take in boarders to add to the family's small income, while Eastman dropped out of high school at the age of 13 so he could support his family, working at an insurance firm and then as a bank teller at Rochester Savings Bank.


Even as a teen, Eastman was said to be incredibly meticulous and very savvy with money, saving up to buy what he referred to as "photograph materials".

By 1878, he was looking to buy land in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic and wanted to buy a "photographic outfit" to document his trip.

Back then, a camera was made from several parts that you'd have to put together carefully before you could take a photo.

You also needed wet glass plates, chemicals, a stand and a light. It was also very expensive, so it wasn't a hobby that the average person could enjoy.

Eastman later said, "In those days, one did not 'take' a camera; one accompanied the outfit in which the camera was only a part. I bought an outfit and learned that it took not only a strong but also a dauntless man to be an outdoor photographer."

Frustrated by the huge number of items he'd need to take on his trip, Eastman decided not to go at all.


Instead, he began to think of ways to make photography easier so everybody could indulge in the pastime.

He wanted to take photography from being a potentially dangerous hobby — due to the chemicals — into one that even a child could manage.


While he was still working at the bank, Eastman created a dry plate made from gelatine instead of glass. (Twenty years later, gelatine would be used to invent jelly).

The difficult thing about using glass plates was they were heavy and expensive, as well as being very fragile. However, when gelatine was used, the process became much easier.

In 1889, Eastman patented a dry plate coating machine made from gelatine — this made the process of preserving film negatives cheap, safe and simple.

He also discovered another tool that would help make everybody a photographer.

An early ad for some of Eastman's first cameras. Photo / Supplied
An early ad for some of Eastman's first cameras. Photo / Supplied

"I also made experiments by using paper as a temporary support and coating the cellulose immediately upon the paper and afterwards coating with the emulsion. I had no difficulty stripping the cellulose from the paper. The cellulose adhered to the emulsion and separated from the paper," Eastman explained.

On March 4, 1884 Eastman patented his invention and, with his associate William Walker, created a special roll holder to hold the film inside the camera.

Four years later, he came up with the name "Kodak" while he was experimenting with anagrams.

"It became a question of trying out a great number of combinations of letters that made words starting and ending with 'K'," Eastman said.

In 1890, Kodak was officially established as a company and introduced the first Kodak camera equipped with Eastman's film. What was so extraordinary about this invention was, for the first time, the customer didn't have to develop the film themselves; Kodak did it for them.

Kodak's motto was, "You press the button, we do the rest."


Eastman's next goal was to make photography a hobby that anybody could afford, instead of being something only wealthy people could indulge in.

His dream was realised in 1900 when Kodak released the Brownie camera that sold for the rock-bottom price of just $2 ($35 today). It was said to be so simple it was even marketed to children.

But things weren't so great in Eastman's personal life.

While he remained a bachelor, he was said to have had a secret relationship with his friend's wife, Josephine Dickman (although many believe it was just a friendship). Outside of work, Eastman held lavish parties at his home and occasionally travelled to Africa where he took part in safaris.

According to the George Eastman Museum website, the Kodak founder would bring home taxidermied animals he'd hunted in Africa and use them as macabre ashtrays and umbrella holders. The house was a treasure trove of modern appliances, such as a central airconditioning and vacuuming system, internal telephone wiring with 21 stations and a pipe organ in the middle of the central room.

Exhibitor Anne Szilard-Oliver with Eastman's 1892 Kodak camera (right) and a Nikon N808S camera at Visions photography exhibition in Myer Rundle Mall in Adelaide. Photo / News Corp Australia
Exhibitor Anne Szilard-Oliver with Eastman's 1892 Kodak camera (right) and a Nikon N808S camera at Visions photography exhibition in Myer Rundle Mall in Adelaide. Photo / News Corp Australia


In 1924, Eastman gave away half his fortune and he achieved even more accolades for being one of the first business owners to introduce profit sharing as an employee incentive.


But his life went downhill in 1928 when he was diagnosed with a spinal condition known as lumbar spinal stenosis; a narrowing of the spinal canal that causes terrible back pain. It meant Eastman had great difficulty walking, so he eventually needed a wheelchair — something he found incredibly depressing.

His mother, who lived with him until her death in 1907, had also used a wheelchair, as did his late sister Katy. Eastman, a man of strong character who was used to being in control of his life, hated the thought that he was now considered "an invalid". He wrote to a friend:

"God keep me from being like them. Doesn't it seem strange that the clearest minds I have ever known should be taken this way? That is the sad thing about illness."

When Eastman's friends were invited to his home to witness the rewriting of his will, they had no idea the meeting was also a farewell.

The note Eastman left for his friends is incredibly short, leaving no doubt as to why he decided to end his life.

The note simply read: "To my friends, my work is done. Why wait?"


Eastman's ashes were buried on the grounds of Eastman Business Park in Rochester, New York, and his home, known as George Eastman House, is now a museum of international photography.

Eastman's short, sad suicide note is on display in the second floor sitting room, although it's said the gun he used to end his life disappeared many years ago.


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