In my travels of late, I am often asked how the demise of Kodak is affecting the city of Rochester. So, when I wandered into a small used bookstore in Washington, D.C. the other day, a small book in an obviously older binding, titled, “History of the Kodak,” caught my attention. Typo on a title? No. In leafing through quickly (I did have a plane to catch), I saw a lens, quick check of the cover page, a bit pricey, considering, more leafing, all the right names for the history of photography in the late 1800s, after all, I haven’t bought a book in over a month, it looks like blog material – purchase.
Here is the story. The author is the niece of David Henderson Houston, Mina Fisher Hammer. Now, we all know of David Houston -- not. That being Ms. Hammer’s point. Writing in 1940, nearly 60 years after the 1881 patent of the rollers that make up roll film, she thought to attempt to correct history and bring her relative from obscurity. It is one of those books that you rarely find: a piece researched diligently by an amateur that collects many dates and names and pretty much gets them all right. There is the short story of photography before 1875, and then the story of David Houston.
Now, it does turn out that Ms. Hammer had an admirable goal, which was simply to note that Mr. Houston was an inventor who changed our world. That he was someone whom history should treat in the same sentence as even Edison and, in fact, that Houston’s work directly influenced Edison. Ms. Hammer posits that Houston made Kodak the company possible – that he created the name Kodak, contrary to any other englamoration (I know, not a word) you may read of Eastman the man. She notes that Kodak the name comes from the letters in the Indian tribe, Dakota.
Houston invented the roller mechanism that manages the roll film. This is classic James Burke stuff. In fact, my subject of a recent blog, Phil Pressel, will appreciate this one. Phil is the other person you don’t know who saved the world. He designed the film rollers that moved literally miles of film at over 100 miles per hour, in space! That was Big Bird. Phil and Mr. Houston have many common traits, I can see now. Mr. Houston settled in North Dakota, of all places, in the 1880s, when the Dakota Indians were still relevant (and I will make them the subject of a blog entry to follow, as that is one of my other areas of interest: North and South American Indians). The good news is this is not the story of an inventor who dies poor and leaves a family to suffer while the evil industrial baron conquers the world. Mr. Houston, it turns out, was already quite well off when he made his way to America around 1870. In the story, our hero landed in New York and after a few years traveled along the Erie canal (where I take a walk at least once a week) and, as is written, made his way across the Great Lakes staying at one mansion after another. Sounds nice. After settling in Cambria, Wisconsin for a bit, he went to North Dakota (at the time the territory called Dakota), got his hands on 500 and then 3,000 acres, married the local school teacher (really) and lived happily ever after inventing the mechanisms that became the camera of Kodak and becoming the local rich guy, big time.
What is probably the most interesting point of the book is how this completely obscure person had an odd passion for inventing camera mechanisms while farming in what soon became North Dakota. Also, somewhat significantly, he invented the film takeup mechanism before anyone had invented celluloid film, but in his patent he clearly anticipates this invention. He was right.
Now, 70 years later, I am carrying the torch incrementally forward. Since the book was published in 1940, I cannot legally scan it and post it; otherwise, I might be inclined to. I did check the obvious place and there are some copies on the market, some even for a bit less than I paid. In any case, I’ll be sure it is added to the Kingslake collection and I’ll see if the Eastman House itself has a copy. This is perhaps a small triumph for Ms. Hammer.
The photo below is the Richard Gere Humanitarian Award, presented at the Eastman Mansion last week. My wife and I are members of the Eastman house (we were married there) and were present last week for the award ceremony. The design was suggested by the Eastman House, reworked a bit with a little help from my wife and me, and fabricated and donated by Optimax Systems.
P.S. As I was about to place this book on the rare book shelf, I happened to notice that inside of the back cover is a typewritten letter. As a result, there will be a Part II, worthy of the wait, perhaps later this week, or early next.