His talented but erratic father died when he was seven years old, leaving debts. His devoted mother coped as widows had for millenia: she took in boarders. The young boy had two older sisters, one of them afflicted with polio. Thus, when George Eastman dropped out of school in 1868 and took a job at age 14 as an office boy, he did so as the man of the family, with weight on his shoulders.
George was serious, extremely orderly, and thrifty, and he made himself useful at a pair of insurance companies and then a bank, where he rose from clerk to bookkeeper. His private passion was the brand new hobby of photography. He experimented with the variety of crude techniques available in the 1870s, haunted photo shops, and swapped tips with professional portraitists.
Eastman was a methodical self-educator, and began to experiment with the tricky chemistry and mechanics of creating photographic emulsions, which were then coated by hand on glass plates. He tinkered, invented, and even took a trip to England (then the technology center for photography) in an attempt to procure partners, and patents, for his innovations. He was racing scores of other nascent entrepreneurs situated around the world, trying to figure out the science and business model of a brand-new and rapidly emerging field.
Fortunately Eastman was a worker with enormous stamina. He would toil at the bank all day, six days a week, then spend his evenings in the rented room where he was experimenting tirelessly with various photo emulsions—devilishly sensitive concoctions subject to mysterious failure given the slightest variation in the chemical recipe or production process. George would work into the night, grabbing catnaps in a hammock he strung in one corner of the room and waking himself to stir the emulsions at exact intervals.
Soon Eastman was building his own business producing photographic supplies and cameras, in an industry where the engineering was in constant flux, and the commercial competition was cutthroat. He moved aggressively, and became the leading force in the sector during the 1890s. From the beginning, he worked to establish a presence not just in the U.S. but in countries around the world. By early in the 20th century, when hobby photography was exploding in popularity, and filmed movies were emerging as mass entertainment, the Eastman Kodak Company had become one of the first firms to dominate a market all across the globe.
Throughout it all, Eastman remained humble, shy, and unassuming. His reticence and boyish face gave him a low profile for many years, even in his home town of Rochester, New York. When he identified himself, at the peak of his success, to a newly hired gate guard outside his own factory, the watchman scoffed, “Glad to meet you; I’m John D. Rockefeller.” One of his friends observed that George “could keep silent in several languages.” It took 25 years of close collaboration before Eastman and University of Rochester president Rush Rhees began to address each other by their first names. Eastman could be brisk and unemotional, and he never married, though he enjoyed his extended family and a number of close friendships.
Eastman was a stern and no-nonsense businessman, but generous in sharing successes with employees and shareholders. He was a pioneer in creating sick pay, disability compensation, pensions, and hospital benefits. After one highly successful stock offering he set aside a large sum from his personal proceeds and had it distributed to 3,000 startled Eastman Kodak employees with a note reading: “This is a personal matter with Mr. Eastman and he requests that you will not consider it as a gift but as extra pay for good work.” It was one of the first corporate bonuses.
Eastman was a high mix of homebody and adventurer. He would work ceaselessly in Rochester, relaxing only in mundane house and garden duties, then explode into some exotic and extended foreign jaunt. He bicycled across Europe several times (and also enthusiastically bicycled to work much of his life, even in Rochester winters). He would go on music-and-theater jags where he’d attend several performances or plays each day. On African safari once he stood filming a rhino on an early hand-cranked movie camera, and calmly continued as the snorting animal charged directly at him, simply sidestepping and actually brushing the animal as it passed. As the very-large rhino began its second charge, with Eastman still methodically filming, the terrified hunter-guide accompanying him shot the creature dead just a few paces from his intrepid client.
By the time Eastman Kodak became a secure juggernaut in the early 1900s, Eastman had lost interest in accumulating wealth. He was one of the richest men in the world, but much of his fortune just sat in low-interest bank accounts. Instead of wanting more money he was now gripped by a powerful desire to put his funds to work in the rest of society. Over the next couple decades he would give away more than anyone except John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. In current dollars, his gifts totaled in the range of $2 billion.
Eastman established brand-new campuses for two universities that became among the best of their kind. He established a medical school, and did pioneering work in improving the dental health of children in the U.S. and Europe. He built one of the greatest music schools in the world. And he was the largest contributor to the education of African Americans during the 1920s.
He also strayed into a few of the dead-ends and dangers of those who become hypnotized by “science” and “progress” and “reason.” He insisted that Kodak abandon tradition and lead the rest of mankind into use of a new rational calendar of 13 equal months of 28 days each. Kodak found it a lonely parade, but continued through the 1980s to use the so-called Cotsworthian calendar for accounting, sales, planning, and other purposes. More seriously, Eastman, like others in the progressive era, became a major funder of eugenics. And when his health began to fail, his utilitarian approach to life led Eastman to commit suicide, at age 77, via a pistol shot to the heart.
In general, though, Eastman was an exceptionally thoughtful and effective philanthropist. As much as or more than any other large American donor he worked hard at being a wise giver. “A rich man should be given credit for the judgment he uses in distributing his wealth, rather than in the amount he gives away,” he stated in a rare public speech. To discipline his giving he followed several crucial principles.
Along with Julius Rosenwald, his contemporary and confrere on this topic, Eastman believed strongly that donors should give while they are living and able to intelligently guide the application of their money. “Men who leave their money to be distributed by others are pie-faced mutts,” he once said famously (just before signing away $39 million in one sitting). Eastman would never have locked up his money in a foundation, like Rockefeller and Carnegie, with money to be dribbled out after his death, in perpetuity, by succeeding waves of professional staff and trustees favoring who-knows-what causes. Eastman distributed the vast bulk of his fortune before he died in 1932, and bequeathed the remaining $25 million or so by last will and testament.
Rather than hiring a professional manager or teams of functionaries to distribute his largesse, Eastman did it himself, with very personal attention. He researched carefully, often acted without being asked, and made all of his own decisions. In addition to giving them money, he actively advised, guided, and assisted groups and causes. One of the reasons he concentrated his giving in the Rochester area was so he could personally supervise the execution, completion, and operation of his good works. He also took pains to avoid “scattering” his resources, and tried instead to “bunch” them for greatest effect.
Eastman ultimately had as much effect as any giver in America. He was a catalytic funder of universities. His $51 million in gifts made the University of Rochester into a top-tier school. The $22 million he gave to MIT reoriented it from local commuter facility to international leader. At the moment Eastman presented himself as a giant voluntary backer of the school, MIT was in such desperate financial straits it had decided to sell its campus and fold itself into Harvard as simply the engineering department of that university. After a court blocked that as a violation of the college’s charter, MIT’s president resigned and the institution tottered. When Eastman stepped up, unbidden and unknown, and built the university a new campus, he turned it into one of the great technology fountains of the world. And this (like much of the rest of Eastman’s philanthropy was carried out completely anonymously, leaving many Americans then and now unaware of his huge philanthropic footprints.
In addition, Eastman gave hefty sums, without solicitation, and loyally over decades, to black colleges like Tuskegee, Hampton, Howard, and Meharry. He also acted close to home, for instance, creating a model school for the black children living around his hunting camp in North Carolina. Between his college and lower-school gifts, George Eastman became the largest donor to African-American schooling of his era.
He was also a pioneer in medical philanthropy, with an ahead-of-his-time emphasis on prevention. Having watched in horror as a boy while his mother had eight teeth pulled at their kitchen table without anesthesia, Eastman established the country’s first free dental clinic for children in Rochester in 1901. He later built it a large central facility that was beautifully decorated for young patients, including with live birds in cages to entertain them. The success of this dispensary led him to build others, including in European cities where Kodak did business. Eastman’s dental clinics in London, Rome, Stockhom, and Paris still exist today.
Eastman single-handedly created the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. He built extensive hospital complexes throughout Rochester (which he identified as "the town I am interested in above all others," and where two thirds of his public gifts were centered).
George Eastman’s most personal gift blessed Rochester and the world alike. “GE is absolutely alcoholic about music,” wrote one friend, after accompanying him on a 1925 culture trip to New York City. They attended 12 operas and plays in six days, as well as visiting the Morgan Library, the Metropolitan Museum, the Frick Museum, and two movies. (“The rest of the time we loafed,” Eastman summarized in his own account.)
Eastman described listening to music as “a necessary part of life,” and installed one of the country’s largest organs in his house (6,175 pipes), then paid an organist to play it every morning as a kind of alarm clock and breakfast accompaniment. “There are no drawbacks to music: you can’t have too much of it,” he opined. “There is no residual bad effect like overindulgence in other things.”
The charmed donor loved to share beautiful music with others, and made many innovative efforts to expose everyday citizens to great performances. He created elaborate music-instruction programs for the community at large, purchased hundreds of instruments for children, and subsidized the best ensembles to play in Rochester. He insisted tickets at all performances he had anything to do with should be sold first-come/first-served to avoid any “class distinctions.” He required that operas be sung in English so people could understand them. He sent the conductor of the local orchestra to Europe for a year of full-time study and practice, then brought him back to lead a large professional orchestra in popular concerts.
With intense attention to detail, Eastman painstakingly created the Eastman Theater, still one of the largest and most wondrous concert halls in the country, into which he introduced imaginative programming. He popularized a new art form—and scandalized many in an era when movies were considered disreputable and trivial—by marrying his two loves of music and film. Every week in his 3,500-seat auditorium a fine orchestra was assembled to accompany the screening of silent films.
In philanthropy and in business, George Eastman was unusually open to novel creative combinations, though always while insisting on excellence and the highest of standards. With the Eastman School of Music he was as demanding as he was generous, and 12 years after his death this entity that he had created from scratch by sheer willpower and financial devotion, had been called the best graduate conservatory in the nation (and one of the best in the world). Eastman likewise aimed to make MIT a world paragon in technology education. He also got that wish.
Observers sometimes characterized George Eastman as having a “success complex.” Hard achievement was everything for him. Failure was not to be tolerated. Remarkably, he often met his own lofty standard.
~ Karl Zinsmeister