Founded by Eastman in 1880, Kodak marketed the world's first flexible roll film in 1888 and turned photography into an overnight craze with a $1 Brownie camera in 1900. Innovation and mass production were about to put the world into cars and airplanes, the American Century was unfolding, and Kodak was ready to record it.
"It's one of the few companies that wiggled its way into the fabric of American life and the American family," said Bob Volpe, 69, a 32-year employee who retired in 1998. "As someone at Kodak once said, 'We put chemicals in one end so our customers can get memories out the other.'"
Intent on keeping his work force happy — they never organized a union — Eastman helped pioneer profit-sharing and, in 1912, began dispensing a generous wage dividend. Going to work for Kodak — "taking the life sentence," as it was called — became a bountiful rite of passage for generations.
"Most of the people who worked at Kodak had a middle-class life without a college education," Volpe said. "Those jobs paid so well, they could buy a boat, two cars, a summer place, and send their kids to college."
Propelled by Eastman's marketing genius, the "Great Yellow Father" held a virtual monopoly of the U.S. photographic industry by 1927. But long after Eastman was stricken with a degenerative spinal disorder and took his own life in 1932, Kodak retained its mighty perch with a succession of magical innovations.
Foremost was Kodachrome, a slide and motion-picture film extolled for 74 years until its demise in 2009 for its sharpness, archival durability and vibrant hues. In the 1960s, easy-load Instamatic 126 became one of the most popular cameras ever, practically replacing old box cameras. In 1975, engineer Steven Sasson created the first digital camera, a toaster-size prototype capturing black-and-white images at a resolution of 0.1 megapixels.
Through the 1990s, Kodak splurged $4 billion on developing the photo technology inside most cellphones and digital devices. But a reluctance to ease its heavy reliance on film allowed rivals like Canon Inc. and Sony Corp. to rush largely unhindered into the fast-emerging digital arena. The immensely lucrative analog business Kodak worried about undermining too soon was virtually erased in a decade by the filmless photography it invented.
"If you're not willing to cannibalize yourself, others will do it for you," said Mark Zupan, dean of the University of Rochester's business school. "Technology is changing ever more rapidly, the world's becoming more globalized, so to stay at the top of your game is getting increasingly harder."
In November, Kodak warned it could run out of cash in a year if it didn't sell 1,100 digital-imaging patents it's been shopping around since July. Analysts estimate they could fetch at least $2 billion.
In the meantime, Kodak has focused its future on new lines of inkjet printers that it says are on the verge of turning a profit. It expects printers, software and packaging to produce more than twice as much revenue by 2013 and account by then for 25 percent of the company's total revenue, or nearly $2 billion.
CEO Antonio Perez said in a statement Thursday that the bankruptcy filing is "a necessary step and the right thing to do for the future of Kodak." The company has secured $950 million in financing from Citigroup Inc., and expects to be able to operate its business during bankruptcy reorganization and pay employees.
On its website, Kodak assured customers that the nearly $1 billion in debtor-in-possession financing would be sufficient to pay vendors, suppliers and other business partners in full for goods and services going forward. The bankruptcy filing in the Southern District of New York does not involve Kodak's international operations.
"To be able to hop from stone to stone across the stream takes great agility and foresight and passion for excellence, and Kodak is capable of that. They have some killer stuff in inkjet printing. It's becoming a profitable product line but what they need is the runway to allow it to take off," Zupan said. "As the saying goes, 'the best way to anticipate the future is to invent it.'"