Column: Eastman Kodak, a failed giant

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I’ve been pondering the recent collapse of Eastman Kodak, once the world’s largest and most profitable photographic materials company. When I worked at the US Naval Photographic Center in Washington, DC in the 1960s, Kodak film, paper and chemicals were all there was. We not only used their materials, we sent our photographers and technicians to the Kodak campus in Rochester, NY to study the art, craft and chemistry of photography.

When George Eastman founded the company back in the late 19th century, he wanted to name it “Nodak” for his hometown roots in North Dakota. Someone convinced him that the letter K was more powerful and decisive than the letter N, however, and the company became Kodak.

At its greatest, the Kodak empire spread over 1,300 acres, occupied 150 buildings and employed some 15,000 workers. The company also provided housing, schools, medical care, golf courses and shopping centers for its employees. Working for Kodak gave a new dimension to the idea of job security.

Trouble started in the 1970s when an upstart Japanese film producer named Fuji announced plans to compete in the US market. For a long time Kodak just ignored the newcomer, convincing itself that Americans would never abandon the Kodak brand. When Fuji became the official film of the 1984 Olympics, however, Kodak realized the Japanese firm was here to stay. When they built a film manufacturing facility within US borders, Kodak finally sat up and took notice.

Then, overnight, photography went digital. Firms like National Geographic stopped ordering Kodachrome. The film business skidded to an abrupt and permanent halt. Eastman Kodak filed for bankruptcy.

It’s ironic that Kodak made the very first digital camera back in the 1970s. But they stopped producing it because they were afraid it might undercut the film business.

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