George Eastman was born on July 12, 1854 in Waterville, New York. His father, George, owned a tree nursery, but it was sold when he was five years old and the family moved to Rochester, New York. His father found it difficult to provide for the family and eventually forced George to drop out of school at the age of fourteen to find work and help support them.
George first worked as a messenger boy at a wage of three dollars per week. A year later, he found a position at an insurance firm, where he wrote policies and earned five dollars per week. In 1874, he was hired to work as a clerk at the Rochester Savings Bank and received a respectable wage of fifteen dollars a week.
In 1878, he decided to make a trip to Santo Domingo and purchased a camera for the vacation. At that time, cameras were huge and required tripods, as well as tents to prepare and develop the film quickly. The system was so complicated that he had to pay someone five dollars to teach him how to use it.
The purchase of the camera introduced him to photography, a hobby that he became addicted to. He decided to try to find a simpler way to take pictures and experimented with new styles of chemical plates. In 1880, he perfected his system, which consisted of a dry plate of film for taking photographs and was much simpler than the wet plates that he had started with.
In mid 1880, George started leasing a building in Rochester to manufacture his dry plates using a machine of his own device. The business teetered on the brink of failure after some plates went bad, but he agreed to replace them free of charge, establishing a good reputation with customers.
In 1885, he invented the first rolled photographic film, using paper that was coated with light-sensitive gelatin. To develop the film, the gelatin was stripped from the paper and transferred to a sheet of clear gelatin, where it was able to be transferred into print.
In 1888, George developed a simple hand held camera that used his rolled film and could be marketed to the general public. On September 4, 1888, George registered the "Kodak" trademark for his new camera company with the US government. He also came up with the company's slogan of "you press the button, we do the rest".
The public loved the idea of simple-to-use cameras and soon Kodak was a massive company. Yet, he did not manage the company greedily, despite his sudden fortune. Instead, he made sure that his employees were paid fairly and even gave them dividends from the company stock and his own profit. In 1919, he gave ten million dollars to Kodak employees, an amount constituting one third of his holdings in the company.
By 1925, George found it necessary to slow down due to his age. He decided to hand over management of Kodak and retreated to become the chairman of the board of directors. From that point forward, he spent most of his time giving away the money that he had worked hard to earn. Over the rest of his life, he gave away $100 million dollars to organizations that included MIT, the University of Rochester, and the Rochester Institute of Technology, which dedicated a building to his memory.
In the late 1920s, George developed a spinal condition that modern doctors suspect was spinal stenosis, or arthritis of the back. The disorder made it incredibly painful to stand and he was forced to walk by awkwardly shuffling his feet. George remembered his mother having to move about in a wheelchair and he did not like the thought of spending the rest of his days in one.
Instead, George decided to end his life by shooting himself in the heart with a pistol. On March 14, 1932, he was discovered dead, along with a suicide note that said "My work is done. Why wait?". Following his funeral, he was buried in Kodak Park in the city of Rochester, New York.
In 1947, his home in Rochester was converted into the "George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film". In 1954, he was also honored on a stamp produced by the United States Postal Service.