The Preacher Who Beat Eastman Kodak
IT TOOK MORE THAN A QUARTER-CENTURY FOR AN OBSCURE BUT PERSISTENT NEW JERSEY CLERGYMAN TO BE RECOGNIZED AS THE INVENTOR OF FLEXIBLE PHOTOGRAPHIC FILM
IF YOU LOOK IN ANY ANTIQUES STORE IN AMERICA, ODDS are that you will find an old camera. Maybe it’s a boxy Brownie or a metal contraption with leather bellows. It probably doesn’t work any more, but it’s a lovely old item. Pick it up, look through the viewfmder, and imagine the people who held it long ago. You’ll probably walk away feeling there’s something magical about that little box.
The real magic, though, was in the film that once hid inside: that long strip of plastic, curled away in its dark cocoon, waiting for a burst of light to change it to a brilliant butterfly. Film is a wonder of chemistry. And, as with many wonderful and beautiful things, it was the source of a bitter battle between two men: George Eastman, the powerful industrialist who brought snapshot photography to the masses, and Hannibal Goodwin, an unassuming preacher from Newark, New Jersey.
The battle began in 1888. In July of that year, the Eastman Dry Plate & Film Company put its simple, compact Kodak camera on sale to the public. The Kodak started a boom in amateur photography that continues to this day. It was a small box camera with a spool of film inside, and after snapping ioo pictures, the photographer mailed the whole thing to Eastman’s factory in Rochester, New York. There, workers developed the pictures and then returned them to the owner, along with the reloaded camera. For half a century, photography had been a complicated and expensive scientific procedure. Now, for the first time, someone with no knowledge of chemistry could take a photograph. The snapshot was born.
The greatest advance in Eastman’s new camera was its film, which replaced the large, bulky glass plates on which photographic images had previously been captured. This was not film in the modern sense; instead, it was a strip of paper coated on one side with a light-sensitive emulsion. Processing it was a colossal nuisance. After the negative was developed, the emulsion had to be painstakingly separated from the paper backing and attached to a transparent base to make prints. The procedure was inelegant, costly, and time-consuming.
Professional photographers wanted nothing to do with this cumbersome method, which often yielded photographs with clouding, streaks, and other imperfections. They continued to make their negatives directly on glass plates. Photos produced this way were exquisite, but nobody enjoyed lugging heavy plates onto mountaintops, especially if they broke on the way home. What the industry needed was a film that could combine the transparency of glass (so that prints could easily be made) with the lightness and flexibility of paper (so that it could be rolled onto a spool). Such a product would not only make amateur snapshots easier to process but would even capture a share of the professional market. George Eastman, founder of the company that bore his name, had been searching for such a film for years, but neither he nor any of the numerous other experimenters in the field had been successful.
A few inventors had come close, including John Carbutt of Philadelphia, who bought very thin sheets of Celluloid (a clear synthetic material) that had been shaved from blocks. Since these were still not flexible enough to use in a roll, he mounted his sheets in rectangular frames, like regular glass plates. The Carbutt plates were lighter and less unwieldy than glass plates, but they still had to be used individually, with the photographer removing and replacing each one under a black canopy. In France the photographer David had tried mechanically pressing sheets of Celluloid to make them thinner, but he got poor results.
The search for film was so maddening because the final product demanded so much. Besides being as clear as glass and as light and flexible as paper, it had to be impervious to the light-sensitive chemicals that would be deposited on it. And it couldn’t tear, wrinkle, fold, or shrivel or stretch in cold or heat. Moreover, any blemish, bubble, or streak in the film would mar the final picture.
Eastman and his chemist Henry Reichenbach tried everything they could think of: Irish moss, seaweed, oiled paper. Nothing worked. Then in September 1888, Eastman received a sample of a new type of Celluloid varnish. Celluloid was the trademarked name for a plastic patented by John Wesley Hyatt and Isaiah Hyatt. It had been popping up in dentures, combs, billiard balls, and many other products since its introduction in 1869. Eastman had been experimenting with Celluloid for months but had never managed to produce a suitable film with it.
He gave the can of varnish to Reichenbach, who spent a few weeks in his laboratory trying to make film with it. He poured it over paper and let it dry, but the film was too thin. He poured it over glass, and this time it was too thick on one end and too thin on the other. He tried again and again and then, finally, gave up. Celluloid, it seemed, was another dead end. Reichenbach took what was left in the can and used it to varnish metalwork in the factory.
Throughout the fall, Eastman continued to receive cans of varnish and samples of film from manufacturers. He later said that all these varnishes and films were too thin or greasy to meet his needs, but he must have seen promise in them. By that winter, he was convinced that the answer lay in some variant of Celluloid, though perhaps not in the actual patented product itself. He told Reichenbach to discard the premixed varnish and start from scratch with the raw ingredients from which Celluloid was made.
The basis of Celluloid is cellulose, the substance that makes up wood and cotton fibers. If you soak cellulose in a mixture of sulfuric and nitric acids, you will get a highly explosive substance called guncotton, the basis for smokeless gunpowder. Using nitric acid alone will yield a less explosive substance called pyroxylin. (Confusingly, both products are referred to as nitrocellulose.) If you dissolve the pyroxylin in alcohol, it turns into a thick, gooey syrup. Add camphor, and you will have Celluloid.
Reichenbach focused his attention on the pyroxylin-alcohol syrup. He started by pouring it onto glass and letting it dry. When he peeled it off, he had a smooth, clear film, but it was so weak that it tore like tissue paper. He tried adding camphor to make it stronger. This worked, but the camphor crystallized as the film dried, making it opaque. The surface of the film also tended to be rough and pitted. Reichenbach fiddled in his lab for weeks, trying to obtain a smooth surface and keep the camphor from crystallizing. Finally he found the magic ingredients: fusel oil (a mixture of mostly amyl alcohols) and amyl acetate. When he poured the solution out and let it dry, he could peel off a clear, strong, flexible sheet. It was perfect. He had invented photographic film.
After refining the process a bit, Reichenbach rushed his recipe to the Patent Office, filing his application on April 9, 1889. There was a brief delay for an interference proceeding, since a prior application was pending on a way to make flexible photographic film. The examiner soon decided, however, that Reichenbach’s process did not infringe that application, because it specified a different mix of chemicals. The patent was granted on December 10, 1889, and Eastman looked forward to great profits. “The new film is the ‘slickest’ product that we ever tried to make. …” he wrote to a business associate. “I wouldn’t trade it for the telephone.”
Reichenbach’s patent was a triumph, and he and Eastman soon forgot about the similar application sitting on a desk in the Patent Office. Such situations were not unusual with Eastman, and almost always the rival inventor’s patent, if it was ultimately granted at all, turned out to be impractical or unenforceable. In the rare case in which a legitimate prior claim did exist, Eastman would simply buy out the inventor for a modest sum. If he devoted any thought to the matter at all, he must have expected the same thing to happen with flexible film.
This case would be different, though, because the claimant would show a persistence and ingenuity few other inventors were capable of. Eastman’s unlikely adversary was a ey-yearold Episcopal clergyman from Newark, New Jersey, named Hannibal Goodwin.
Reverend Goodwin was a big, gregarious man with a full white beard who was beloved in his parish, especially for his work with the Sunday school, where he liked to entertain the children with lantern slides projected on the wall. In the late 18705, when he was unable to find suitable Bible pictures for his young charges, he decided to make his own glass-plate photographs. He soon discovered what many had before him: Glass-plate photography was a pain in the neck. “I came to see more clearly the importance of a substitute for glass,” he told a reporter around the turn of the century. “I looked through the photo journals and found that photographers had been looking for the same thing for 40 years, and no-one had found it. I decided to try.”
It may seem strange that an elderly preacher would attempt such complicated chemistry, but it was all part of the temper of the times. The 1870s and 1880s saw an explosion of inventiveness throughout the United States. That period spawned the trolley car, the incandescent lamp, the cash register, the pneumatic tire, and the modern steam turbine. It’s no wonder that Goodwin, who had always liked to tinker (he had previously applied for two patents related to photoengraving), got swept up in the excitement. He was eventually granted 15 patents.
Goodwin went to the attic of his rectory and began his experiments. He labored for nearly a year trying to turn nitrocellulose (i.e., pyroxylin) into film. Parishioners noticed dark stains on his hands and acid burns on his clothing. There were rumors of explosions. But finally he found a formula that worked. To make his film, he dissolved nitrocellulose in nitrobenzole, then diluted the thick mixture with alcohol. He poured the solution onto glass, and when the nitrobenzole and alcohol evaporated, he had a film good enough to coat with emulsion and use for taking pictures.
Judging from the earliest versions of his patent application, Goodwin had no idea of how or why his invention worked. In the course of a decade’s worth of revisions, however, he and his lawyers developed an explanation. According to the final patent, Goodwin’s most important advance lay in the use of two solvents, one of which (alcohol) mixes with water and has a higher vapor pressure, while the other (nitrobenzole) does not mix with water and has a lower vapor pressure. The alcohol he used was diluted with water, and water, according to Goodwin, was the key to the entire process: It caused nitrocellulose to precipitate, or solidify, and thus acted “as an accelerator in the setting, drying, and hardening of the resulting film.”
If Goodwin had used diluted alcohol alone, then a mixture of nitrocellulose and water would have been left after the alcohol evaporated. Since nitrocellulose is not soluble in water, this would not have formed a good, homogeneous film, but rather one that was weak and porous. Conversely, using nitrobenzole alone would have yielded a soft, sticky, greasy film, since no water would be present to make the nitrocellulose harden. But the two-solvent method overcame these problems by combining alcohol’s ability to dissolve water with nitrobenzole’s high boiling point.
After Goodwin’s mixture was spread on a smooth surface, the alcohol was first to evaporate. As it did so, enough water remained to make the nitrocellulose harden into a good film, and it remained dispersed throughout the mixture. When the water in turn evaporated, the presence of nitrobenzole allowed the mixture to spread out and fill in any holes that resulted. By the time all the water was gone, the nitrocellulose had already hardened, so when the nitrobenzole evaporated as well, what remained was clear, smooth, hard, and flexible—perfect for photographic film.
Though he probably understood little of the underlying chemistry, Goodwin knew he had a valuable invention on his hands, and he decided to patent it. Unfortunately, his lawyers were distinctly second-rate, possibly because he lacked the money to pay for good ones. As a historian has written, “the preparation and prosecution of the application failed to indicate the level of professional competency that most patents in related areas possessed at this time.” Nonetheless, the record shows that Goodwin applied for a patent on flexible film on May 2, 1887—nearly two years before Reichenbach.
His application landed on the desk of a patent examiner named William Burke, who later would be assigned the Reichenbach application. It’s hard to avoid feeling pity for Burke as you read through the voluminous Goodwin file. Most patent files from the time are slim, compact bundles, as trim and tidy as road maps. The Goodwin file is the size of two huge steaks wrapped in paper.
Everything about it is messy. Goodwin was, after all, a preacher, not a chemist, and this was one of his first patent applications. The document contained sloppy wording, a nebulous formula, and absurdly broad claims. The basic idea behind it, after all, was not new; suggestions for making film by pouring a nitrocellulose solution onto glass had been appearing in photographic journals for decades. Goodwin’s invention was the first one that worked, but instead of explaining exactly how it differed from the others, he audaciously (or naively) asked for a patent covering any nitrocellulose substitute for glass or paper that was produced by the pour-and-dry method. It was like inventing the pencil and laying claim to all pointed objects.
Burke rejected the application but suggested changes. Over the next year, the application was amended and rejected another six times. Many of the amendments were just as messy and muddled as the original application. Burke’s signature seems to get more and more ragged on each succeeding letter to Newark.
GOODWIN’S APPLICATION WAS STILL IN LIMBO WHEN Reichenbach’s arrived in 1889. Reichenbach, with his background in chemistry and the help of topnotch patent lawyers, submitted a clear, elegant description of his process. In contrast with Goodwin’s hazy specifications (“dissolved in nitro benzole, or other solvent, and diluted in alcohol, or other dilutant”), Reichenbach’s formula reads like Betty Crocker: “Dissolve nine thousand grains of nitro-cellulose and five thousand four hundred grains of camphor in one hundred and twelve ounces of methylalcohol, and to the solution thus obtained add twenty-eight ounces of fusel-oil and seven ounces of amyl-acetate.” This mixture was then to be heated and stirred, filtered through a fine cotton cloth, spread on a sheet of lightly waxed glass, and left to dry.
After wrestling with Goodwin’s generalities, Burke must have been delighted with this lovely and specific formula. Following a brief delay for the interference proceeding, he awarded the patent to Reichenbach. Yet the very precision that was responsible for winning Reichenbach the patent would end up working against him and Eastman.
For the moment, though, everything looked promising. Flexible Kodak film went on sale in the late summer of 1889 and was an instant hit. Goodwin was dismayed. The aged inventor, now retired from his clerical duties, traveled to the Patent Office to consult with its staff. Over the next year, he submitted five new amendments. After that, the case dragged on as Goodwin requested a year-long extension. Finally, on January 18, 1892, he achieved his first success, as the Patent Office reopened the interference between Reichenbach’s patent and the many-times-revised Goodwin application.
An interference is a proceeding to determine who is the original inventor when two or more people claim similar patents. It is an administrative proceeding, not a judicial one, but just as in a court of law, the examiner hears testimony from both sides, reads affidavits and briefs, and makes a judgment based on the law. In the spring of 1893, Eastman won a major victory when the commissioner of patents, on appeal, ruled that the burden of proof lay on Goodwin. When the impecunious Goodwin could not assemble the necessary papers in time, he conceded the validity of Reichenbach’s patent—but only for film containing large amounts of camphor. Goodwin’s camphor-free formula retained the potential to embrace a very wide area of claims. Except for the camphor, in fact, Reichenbach’s procedure was basically the same as Goodwin’s, with the mixture of amyl acetate and fusel oil acting as the high-boiling component and methyl alcohol as the low-boiling component.
Goodwin and his lawyers used up almost all of the permitted two-year period to amend their application yet again. Then, between 1895 and 1898, the application went back to its familiar pattern of repeated denials and revisions. In pursuing his endless appeals and reapplications, the preacher seems to have been driven by a deep sense of injustice. “Why did I not abandon the business, as I was more than once advised?” he said in an interview. “I felt sure I was legally entitled to a patent. I felt sure that though the gods grind their mills almost hopelessly slow, they generally at last grind out a grist, and from long experience, I was confident that all things come to those who wait.”
Miraculously, he was right. In early 1898, after a series of turndowns, the Goodwin patent reached the final level of appeal: the board of examiners of the Patent Office. By this time, Goodwin had acquired a much better lawyer and a much stronger knowledge of chemistry. His amended application, while containing the same basic ideas, was far more sophisticated than the original. The examiners read over the entire II-year history of the case, slowly sifting their way through an enormous pile of paperwork. Then, in essence, they threw up their hands. On September 13, 1898, they finally granted Goodwin a patent for flexible photographic film. Now it was up to the courts to decide whether it had been issued legitimately and, if so, whether its claims covered Kodak film.
Goodwin, now 76, was thrilled. He incorporated the Goodwin Film & Camera Company and opened a small factory in Newark as his attorneys looked for financial backers and accused Eastman Kodak of patent infringement. George Eastman was scornful. “There is nothing in the ridiculous story of the Rev Goodwin,” he wrote. “His patent has no such importance as he supposes.” Eastman Kodak, as his company was now called, continued to dominate the market, manufacturing about 80 percent of the flexible film sold in America. But although the Reichenbach patent remained unchallenged, Eastman Kodak had a problem nonetheless, because in the years since its issuance, the company had changed its recipe for film. To avoid legal difficulties with the Celluloid Company, it had reduced the amount of camphor, which was an important ingredient in Celluloid.
Then, in 1899, Eastman Kodak adopted a new method of film production. Now, instead of being spread on glass tables and allowed to dry, the film dope was poured onto a huge wheel and pulled off the other side in one long, continuous strip. This new method didn’t allow much time for the film to dry. Reducing the camphor content yet again made it dry faster, but it also made the recipe even more similar to Goodwin’s formula.
Goodwin died on the last day of 1900, leaving his widow, Rebecca, to carry on the fight. In July 1901, she sold the Goodwin company to a pair of photographic-equipment manufacturers, the E. & H. T. Anthony Company and Adams and Scovill. (In December these two firms merged into Anthony and Scovill, which in 1907 was renamed the Ansco Company.) Shortly after purchasing the Goodwin company, Frederick Anthony of the Anthony firm offered to sell Eastman the Goodwin patent for a million dollars. Though Eastman had bought many patents from inventors before—enough to get him into antitrust trouble, in fact—he rejected the offer and told Anthony that he would actually welcome a lawsuit to put the matter to rest once and for all. Anthony and Scovill responded by undertaking small-scale production of film using Goodwin’s method at a plant in Binghamton, New York. The first rolls came off the production line in December 1901. Having established that the patent could actually be put into practice, Goodwin Film & Camera immediately filed an infringement suit against Eastman Kodak.
IT HAD TAKEN REVEREND GOODWIN MORE THAN 11 YEARS to secure his patent, and it would take his successors the same amount of time to enforce it. The battle dragged on sporadically as Anthony and Scovill, like Goodwin before, struggled with financial difficulties. The stakes had risen with the advent of motion pictures, which used flexible film at a prodigious rate (a two-minute peep show used 100 feet of film) and could never have been more than a curiosity without it. Alternating legal thrusts with settlement offers, the patent owners pursued the case through charges, countercharges, contradictory scientific testimony, and tortuous legal maneuvers. Finally, in May 1913, the U.S. District Court for western New York heard arguments in the case.
By this point, Ansco had some fairly impressive talent on its side. Edmund Wetmore, a former president of the American Bar Association, was a member of its legal team, and Charles Frederick Chandler, the distinguished chemist for whom a Columbia University chemistry building is named, testified as an expert witness. Eastman had equally skillful lawyers and chemists on his side, and he was confident that the preacher’s patent would not hold up. But to Eastman’s shock and his lawyers’ mortification, the court found for the plaintiffs in August 1913.
In his decision, Judge John R. Hazel conceded that minor imperfections might exist in the Goodwin patent, but they did not affect its validity. As for the earlier methods cited by Eastman Kodak for producing film from nitrocellulose, all of them were either impractical or inapplicable to the case at hand. The key fact was that no one before Goodwin had dissolved nitrocellulose in a high-boiling solvent, thinned it with a low-boiling diluent, and used the resulting mixture to make film. Therefore, Goodwin’s patent was valid, and Eastman Kodak had been infringing it for years.
In March 1914, more than a quarter-century after Goodwin’s first application, the case finally reached its end when an appeals court affirmed the district court’s ruling. Ansco collected slightly more than $5 million from Eastman Kodak, an amount equal to about 5 percent of George Eastman’s net worth. Payments from other manufacturers totaled around $300,000. Goodwin’s widow died a few months after receiving her share.
Patent disputes always seem to end with a clear winner and loser. It’s a satisfying way to end a story, especially if the underdog wins, but it isn’t always true. Goodwin, in a sense, won this battle. He received his patent, his sense of justice was satisfied, and his heirs took home a fair amount of cash. Newark named a street after him, and history regards him as the inventor of photographic film. For Eastman, though, the Goodwin settlement was little more than a speed bump on his road to creating a photographic empire. His name remains a household word today, even though Celluloid has long since been replaced by safer and more durable acetate film base, and now digital cameras threaten the very notion of film. In a larger sense, of course, we are all winners, every time we take a snapshot or watch a movie.
Was Hannibal Goodwin really the father of photographic film? His original method was never used commercially until his backers decided it would help their infringement case, and even then only tiny amounts of Goodwin film were sold. There is no question that Reichenbach and Eastman had never heard of Goodwin or his formula when they came up with their film, and that Eastman Kodak made all the important advances in mass-producing the product. Nevertheless, Hannibal Goodwin did get there first. And, in a story that should inspire individual inventors everywhere, he never gave up until he got the Patent Office, and eventually one of the world’s largest companies, to admit it.