Wherefore Art Thou, Kodak? A Cautionary Tale

by Hugh Brownstone2 Comments

Once the global, high-tech titan of the photographic industry when “leader” actually meant something and photography was new, Kodak is now a cautionary tale of what happens when leaders squander their success by trying to protect profits at the expense of innovation.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
– George Santayana

“I've got news for Mr. Santayana: we're doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That's what it is to be alive.”
– Kurt Vonnegut

At a time when the entire imaging industry continues a period of turmoil marked both by innovation on the one hand (digital sensors; flat lenses; lighting technology; the rise of software, the Internet, and social media…) and financial engineering on the other (bankruptcies, mergers & acquisitions, offshoring, and layoffs), it’s instructive to return to the example of Eastman Kodak, founded by George Eastman in Rochester, NY in 1888.

A contemporary of the men who built America — John D. Rockefeller,  Standard Oil, 1870; Thomas Edison, Menlo Park, 1876; Andrew Carnegie, U.S. Steel, 1901; and Henry Ford, Ford Motors, 1908 — Eastman was the man who popularized roll film (something he himself did not invent) and created a company which achieved scale and greatness far beyond his own effort after he ended his life in 1932.

Eastman Kodak became iconic – and an innovation powerhouse.

Yet little more than forty years later, even as the company bearing his name developed a revolutionary product — the first digital camera – it chose to sit on it for fear of cannibalizing its film sales.

Correct concern, bad call: Kodak took too long to rectify this gross miscalculation, allowing other companies to cannibalize its business instead. Kodak filed for bankruptcy at the beginning of 2012.

But bankruptcy doesn’t necessarily mean “defunct,” and Kodak emerged from bankruptcy 18 months later, a shell of its former self.

It is a very sad state of affairs, perhaps inescapable, but at least for now we have a group of Hollywood studios and directors whose fondness for Kodak film stock has been translated into a commitment and financial lifeline for a while longer.

In the end, I suspect Mr. Vonnegut was right: there are only a finite number of possible outcomes in the spectrum of human existence, so we are destined to repeat them.

The only question, in this context is: which companies today will repeat which mistakes? [bctt tweet=”Kodak as a cautionary tale”]

At Kodak, Clinging to a Future Beyond Film

Via The New York Times:

Of the roughly 200 buildings that once stood on the 1,300-acre campus of Eastman Kodak’s business park in Rochester, 80 have been demolished and 59 others sold off. Terry Taber, bespectacled, 60, and a loyal Kodak employee of 34 years, still works in one of the remaining Kodak structures, rubble from demolition not far from its doors.

Mr. Taber oversees research and development at Kodak. Many people might be surprised to know that Kodak is still in business at all, much less employing someone in the hopeful-sounding enterprise of developing new technology ideas. But if the film company, which emerged from bankruptcy in 2013, has any light in its future, Mr. Taber is likely to have something to do with it.

In a warren of basement labs, some of the 300 scientists and engineers who work for Mr. Taber are studying nanoparticle wonder inks, cheap sensors that can be embedded in packaging to indicate whether meats or medicines have spoiled, and touch screens that could make smartphones cheaper.



Much of this is old stuff, left over from the company’s glory days. But Mr. Taber’s boss hopes that somewhere in those projects there might be a nugget of gold.

“I’m mining the history of this company for its underlying technologies,” said Jeff Clarke, 53, who became Kodak’s chief executive last year. Mr. Clarke has no delusions that Kodak could bring those technologies to market on its own; it will need corporate partners to make actual products. “We’ll never be able to prosecute the value of our intellectual property with Kodak-branded sales,” he said in an office in the same tower where George Eastman once looked out on his global tech empire.

What happens after a tech company is left for dead but the people left behind refuse to give up the fight? At Kodak the answer is to dig deep into a legacy of innovation in the photography business and see if its remaining talent in optics and chemistry can be turned into new money in other industries.

Read full article at The New York Times “At Kodak, Clinging to a Future Beyond Film”

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(cover photo credit: snap from The New York Times)


  1. Kodak and Polaroid were well-ahead of the Japanese in sensor technology. But even had they aggressively developed digital imaging technology, they would have eventually been undercut by the willingness of the Japanese to work harder, and their lower manufacturing costs.
    Polaroid’s failure was even worse than Kodak’s. Had the company continued providing research and development services for other firms (which it did during the ’30s), it might still be around.

  2. Kodak was a huge photographic company that became arrogant in its dealings with it’s smaller customers and created an opening for it’s Japanese competitors, causing the Great Yellow and Red Monolith to stumble and fail.

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