Europe — 1914 to 1918 — The First World War led to the mobilization of more than 70 million military personnel, including 60 million Europeans. One of the largest wars — and deadliest conflicts — in history was creating difficulties for American companies relying on supplies from Europe.
Rochester, N.Y. — During the war. Eastman Kodak Company was struggling to get much-needed international supplies of photographic paper, optical glass, gelatin and chemicals — including methanol, acetic acid and acetone. By the end of the war, Kodak founder George Eastman had decided that he would never again be dependent on raw materials from outside his immediate control.
Kingsport, Tenn. — Just before the end of the war. The American Wood Reduction Company had contracted with the U.S. government to build a wood distillation plant in Kingsport, Tenn., to make methanol and other related chemicals. Before the plant was finished, however, the war ended, and American Wood Reduction cut its ties to Kingsport. As Kodak employees were scouting the country for suitable quantities of methanol and acetone, Kingsport land developer J. Fred Johnson was conducting a nationwide search of his own, hoping to find a buyer for that half-built wood distillation plant.
George Eastman was born in 1854 in Waterville, New York. He dropped out of school at age 14 to support his widowed mother and two sisters. When he was 24, he made plans to visit Santo Domingo. When a colleague suggested that he take a camera along, he bought a photographic outfit with all the paraphernalia of the wet-plate days. Although he never made the journey, he became fully engrossed in photography and sought to simplify the complicated process. He spent three years experimenting with gelatin emulsions and, by 1880, had invented and patented a dry-plate coating machine.
In 1881, with the financial backing of Rochester businessman Henry Strong, Eastman formed the Eastman Dry Plate Company (reincorporated as the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company in 1884, and as Eastman Kodak Company in 1892). With a series of innovations, the company created easy-to-use cameras that made photography widely accessible, established the practice of professional photofinishing, and developed a flexible film that was a critical contribution to the launch of the motion picture industry.