The Camera that Changed the Face of Photography

By John Wade Back to


In its early days, photography was a complicated business, a pursuit taken up only by professionals or extremely enthusiastic and knowledgeable amateurs. In 1888, along came a camera that changed all that. It had no complicated controls and instead of taking pictures on individual glass plates, as had previously been the case, it used a roll of film.

Until then the word ‘snapshot’ referred to a gunshot fired quickly without seriously aiming at a fast-moving target. But now the word took on a new meaning. Snapshot photography for the masses arrived with a camera aimed at (and bought by) people who might never before have thought of owning a camera.

This new type of camera was the brainchild of George Eastman. He became interested in photography at 24, when he bought a wet plate outfit in which plates had to be made and sensitized prior to exposure, used while still wet and then processed immediately after. To make photography simpler, Eastman began manufacturing dry plates, which could be made in advance for use and development at a later  date. From there it was only a short step to coating an emulsion onto paper to make flexible film.

Eastman’s first commercial use for the film was loaded into holders, made to fit existing plate cameras. But soon he turned his attention elsewhere. On March 30 1888 he filed a patent for the camera that changed the way people thought about photography. It was the first roll film snapshot camera, and he called it The Kodak.

The No.1 Kodak of 1888. (Picture courtesy of George Eastman House)

Over the years, there has been speculation about where the word came from. Some reckoned it was an acronym for something that no one seems to remember. Others were of the opinion that it was the sound the shutter made—‘kodak’. Neither was true. Here’s how Eastman, speaking in 1920, explained the word: “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.”

Later, he wrote: “This is not a foreign name or word. It was constructed by me to serve a definite purpose. It has the following merits as a trademark. It is short. It is not capable of mispronunciation. It does not resemble anything in the art and cannot be associated with anything else in the art.”

The Kodak was a box camera, certainly not the first of the type, but undoubtedly a significant inf luence on the shape of things to come in the snapshot market. It measured 61⁄2 x 33⁄4 x 31⁄4 inches, weighed only 35 ounces and was covered in black morocco leather. It had only three controls: a string to tension the shutter, a button to release it and a key to wind the film. It sold for $25.

Original print from The No.1 Kodak.

The camera used stripping film, in which the emulsion was stripped away from a paper base, transferred to a sheet of clear gelatin and varnished with collodion during development.

The shutter consisted of a hollow cylinder with the lens supported inside. The cylinder rotated about an axis crossways to the lens axis. A string attached to the cylinder was led through a hole to the outside of the camera body, and when this was pulled in a series of short jerks, it rotated the cylinder against a spring, which tensioned it ready for the exposure. Pressing the button released the cylinder to rotate and, when an aperture in the shutter cylinder passed the lens, the exposure was made. In 1889, a more straightforward sector shutter replaced this complicated mechanism.

The lens was fixed focus with a fixed aperture, and a 60-degree angle of view, which allowed a depth of field from four feet to infinity. Although the camera had no viewfinder, early models were supplied with a piece of card which, placed on top of the body, gave a rough guide for framing the picture. Later cameras were etched on top with V-lines.

Original print from The No.1 Kodak.

The negative image was circular at 21⁄2 inches in diameter. This was because the lens wasn’t good enough to provide fine definition to all corners of the picture area. A circular mask was placed in front of the film so only the center of the lens’s image was recorded.

The Kodak came ready-loaded with enough film for 100 exposures. When completed, camera and film were returned to the Eastman factory for developing and printing where the prints were made from negatives and contact printed by daylight. The camera was reloaded with new film and returned to the photographer who received the prints, mounted and burnished together with the negatives, all for a cost of $10. Before long people who had never before used a camera began making pictures and the Kodak name became a household word. In the year following its launch, sales estimates were put at 13,000. By 1892, advertisements claimed 90,000 had been sold worldwide.

Following New York’s centennial celebrations in 1889, when professional photographers mingled with dedicated amateurs and the new breed of snapshot photographers, around 900 Kodaks were mailed to the Eastman factory in a week. Most users received their prints back within ten days, a slightly delayed time because of the influx of so many cameras, but also because dull weather conditions slowed down the contact printing process.

Scientific Americanmagazine commented: “We believe this system has never before been placed on such an extensive commercial scale as is now commenced, and it promises to make the art of photography well nigh universal.”

Picture from the No.3 Kodak.

Launching the camera in 1888, the Eastman Company announced: “Anybody who can wind a watch can use a Kodak Camera. Early advertisements claimed: The Kodak is the smallest, lightest and simplest of all Detective cameras—for the ten operations necessary with most Cameras of this class, we have ONLY THREE SIMPLE MOVEMENTS. No focusing. No finder required.”

Other advertising claims included: “Why waste time in learning to manipulate glass dry plates when they are now superseded by a better material. You, anyone, can make photographs without study, trouble, experiment, chemicals or darkroom, without even soiling the fingers.” The most famous advertising slogan, however, was the one that best summed up the camera: “You Press the Button, We Do the Rest.”

One of the very few criticisms aimed at the Kodak was the size of picture it produced. That was something that Eastman was quick to address. In August 1889, he announced three new cameras for larger negatives, at which point the original Kodak became known as the No.1.

With the new cameras came a new type of film, which Eastman called Transparent Film. Instead of a paper base, the emulsion was now coated onto celluloid with no need for the stripping process and the problems sometimes associated with it during development.

The picture from the No.2 Kodak was still circular, but now with a diameter of 31⁄2 inches, with 100 shots to a roll of film. The lens remained as a fixed focus type, but three apertures were added. The camera sold for $32.50.

A dealer catalog from around 1889, used to show customers Kodak cameras and the pictures they took.

The No.3 Kodak offered the first rectangular picture of 3 1⁄4 x 4 1⁄4 inches, two viewfinders for taking horizontal or vertical pictures and two tripod mounts. The lens could be focused for the first time, rotating apertures were available and the instantaneous shutter had adjustable speeds. It took 100 pictures to a roll, but was sold alongside the No.3 Kodak Junior, for only 60 pictures. Both cameras sold for $40.

The No.4 Kodak was the largest of them all, producing pictures of 4×5 inches, with twin viewfinders, two tripod mounts, rotating stops, adjustable speeds and  rack and pinion focusing. It shot 100 pictures to a roll and was sold alongside the No.4 Junior Kodak that produced 48 exposures. Both cameras sold for $50.

It was claimed that an expert operator carefully tested every camera before it was finally loaded with film. Then between one and six negatives were made with each camera including focus adjustment and the definition examined under a magnifying glass. Every lens that did not come up to the company’s high standard was rejected. The Eastman Company claimed that they kept on file the final test negative of every camera sold, knowing exactly what each lens was capable of before offering it to a customer.

As we now know, the Kodak brand went on to greater things. But it all began with that little box camera launched in 1888 and which remained in production until 1892. It introduced the joys of photography to many who might never otherwise have ever thought of owning or using a camera. Also, with its introduction of roll film, it changed the way cameras would be made right up until the advent of digital technology. It really was the camera that changed the face of photography.

About the Author

John Wade
John Wade began his journalistic career on local newspapers, working his way from junior reporter to deputy editor. He was editor of Photography magazine in the UK for seven years before becoming a freelance writer and photographer 25 years ago. He has written more than 30 books on photographic history and photo techniques and has lately turned his attention to self-publishing his own books on classic cameras.