On This Day In Oil & Gas - October 14th 1884, Rochester, New York State, United States of America

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Tim Haïdar

After an eight-month wait, a wad of documents finally arrives at the doorstep of a myopic thirty-year old man with a keen eye for detail.

He was the youngest child of three, born to the founder of a small business school in one of the United States’ first boomtowns. Upon the death of his father, he would leave formal education and become a messenger boy and courier, where he would develop a lifelong passion for cycling. When his polio-stricken sister died, he would ditch the idea of biking for a living to begin studying as an accountant in order to command a higher living wage.

At the age of 24, a trip abroad would change the direction of his life forever. Whilst preparing for a jaunt to the Dominican Republic, an acquaintance convinced him to document his first foreign vacation. Taken with the notion, he would spend a small fortune buying the cumbersome photographic apparatus of the age to capture those golden moments in shades of sepia. In the end, the equipment would end up costing so much that he could not afford the holiday, and he spent the coming weeks staring at the newly-bought reasons for his staycation.

The gazing would soon galvanise this man into action, and he began to tinker with the photographic paraphernalia that littered his front parlour in an attempt to produce less expensive and more practical kit with which to bring the nascent art of photography to the masses.

Two years later, he would quit his banal bookkeeping job and establish his own photography company. Two years after that, we arrive at this very moment, the granting of US Patent #306470, simply called “Photographic Film”. His name is George Eastman, his invention is the first roll-film for a photographic camera and the company he founded was Kodak. Eastman’s roll-film would become the basis for all still cameras for a century, as well as the fundament on which motion picture cameras were based. 

To say that Eastman’s invention changed oil and gas would be facile – it changed the way we look at the world. But I choose to tell a cautionary tale for the oil and gas world, and the business sphere at large, in the case of the industrial giant that was Kodak. 

In 1975, Kodak employee, Steven Sasson, went to the top brass at the world’s largest photography company and presented them with an awkward contraption. 

Taking 50 milliseconds to capture an image, 23 seconds to record it to magnetic tape, and a further 30 seconds to produce a 0.01 megapixel image of what was snapped, this was the prototypical digital camera. Based on this model, in 1989, Sasson and colleague Robert Hills had invented the first digital single-lens reflex camera (DSLR)- a step-change in photography. Yet Kodak did not take this device to market for fear that it would scupper their sales of traditional photographic film. 

Although the company made billions from the patent of the digital camera, Kodak’s transition to digital media was slothful, and, in 2012, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The moral of the story? The mighty fall, and in a financial climate of dog-eat-dog predation, the monetisation of your intellectual property may the only thing that stops your legend disappearing in a flash….