IT WAS the Apple of its era. Just like the late Steve Jobs with computers and music-players, George Eastman (pictured below behind the camera, with Thomas Edison) did not invent the camera and photographic development. But he simplified the technology. He outmaneuvered rivals. And he marketed his products in novel ways.
Yet the empire Eastman started to build at the end of the 19th century, and which dominated the 20th, did not last long into the 21st century. On January 18th Eastman Kodak filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in New York. The firm was laid low by the rapid shift to digital photography and away from film, where Kodak once earned 70% margins and enjoyed a 90% market share in America.
These handsome profits meant that the firm could invest huge sums in research and development. Yet ironically, extensive R&D contributed to Kodak’s undoing, since the firm ended up pioneering the very digital cameras that went on to kill its core business. The profits also allowed Kodak to be a generous and caring company for generations of employees in Rochester (New York), where it is based, and beyond. This, too, added to its troubles, since its pension obligations left it with less capital to diversify or invest in promising areas that might have saved it.