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Photo giant near sad collapse

Posted: October 20, 2011 11:05 a.m.
Updated: October 21, 2011 5:00 a.m.

When musical great Paul Simon wrote the hit song “Kodachrome” in 1973, nobody could have foreseen that 38 years later, the photographic giant Eastman Kodak would be on the verge of bankruptcy.

Kodak was perhaps the best-known brand in the world at that time, a photographic megalith that controlled its industry with nearly complete dominance.

It was the master of what graduate schools of business call vertical integration: the folks at Kodak sold you a camera, then they sold you some film to put in it, then they sold you the processing.

Kodak created fun and memories for everyday Americans, and they made it easy. When founder George Eastman invented the first simple camera in 1888, he coined the slogan, “You press the button, we do the rest.”

If you’re under 30, you probably don’t even remember the days of film. You grew up with digital cameras, and the concept of loading film and then having it processed probably seems as ancient to you as going from Camden to Columbia in a horse and buggy.

But if you have a few gray hairs, you probably remember Kodak’s film cameras -- and especially the Instamatic, perhaps the greatest photographic invention ever.

When the Instamatic burst onto the scene in 1963, it revolutionized picture-taking. No longer did you have to laboriously wind a roll of film through the camera, hoping it wouldn’t snag. You just dropped a cartridge in and closed the back of the Instamatic.

Magic!

What’s more, if you wanted to take photos inside or at night, you pressed a simple device called a flash cube onto the top of the camera. Voila -- more magic!

A standard roll was 12 exposures, and when you’d popped the shutter button a dozen times, you dropped your cartridge in a special Kodak mailing envelope or took it down to the local drug store, and they’d mail it in for you.

A week or so later, back came your prints, and they were in color. Heck, the magic never ended.

That was nearly half a century ago. If you’re a whippersnapper --  if you have grown up with the instant gratification of digital photography, seeing your photos as soon as you have taken them -- you can’t imagine the anticipation of opening the mailbox and finding an envelope with your prints inside.

You’d eagerly tear at the yellow wrapping and those little Instamatic prints would fall out.

In today’s world, they’d be laughed at, ridiculed, considered hopelessly backwards and inept. They were, after all, only about three inches square, and with only one shutter speed on an Instamatic, the prints weren’t exactly crisp and color-saturated.

But they were photographs, by golly, and you had taken them with your own hand. In those days, they looked pretty darned good, even if a few heads might be chopped off and the entire scene might be a bit crooked.

Oh, well, I digress.

In 1975, a Kodak engineer named Steve Sasson invented the first digital camera. It would be a quarter-century before the concept would evolve into what we know it to be today, and Kodak missed the boat, left in the digital dust by its competitors as it relied on tried-and-true film.

That misjudgment was one of the great blunders in business history.

The iconic company, which once employed 60,000 people in Rochester, N.Y., alone, is struggling to survive and gasping to stave off bankruptcy.

If it collapses -- if suddenly there is no more Kodak -- many people will never understand just how much the company and its technology meant to those who grew up with the Instamatic or even its predecessor Brownie cameras.

Kodak biting the dust? It could happen.

Times change. Companies come. They go.

We just never thought Kodak would.

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