Dakota Datebook

Kodak from Nodak-David Houston

Saturday, October 11, 2003

On October 11, 1881, a homesteader living in Hunter, North Dakota, took out a patent for camera film that would forever change the world of photography. The inventor, David Henderson Houston, was to become a major player in the Kodak empire.

Houston, the son of a tenant farmer, was born on June 14th, 1841 in Auchterarder, Scotland, the same year his family emigrated to the United States. David and two brothers were the only three out of six children to survive infancy.

Houston turned out to be exceptionally inventive, and when he was only 26 years old, he took out his first patent on a camera.

In 1879, Houston came to Dakota Territory looking for land and bought 400 acres near Hunter, 30 miles northwest of Fargo. There, he continued inventing and came up with an improved design for a disc plow and also helped develop Blue Stem Seed Wheat. But his main interest continued to be photography.

It was his business relationship with George Eastman that encouraged Houston to further improve photography equipment. Eastman, who was a high school dropout, had great vision. He bought 21 camera patents from Houston, including the invention that made them famous – a portable camera. Up until then, people had to rely on professional photographers. For this new hand-held camera, Eastman paid Houston $5000, as well as monthly royalties for the rest of his life.

Houston then came up with another idea that would take the portable camera to a new level. In 1881, he received patent #248,179 for Photographic Apparatus described as “a camera whose inner end has a receptacle containing a roll of sensitized paper or any other suitable tissue, such as gelatine or any more durable material that may be discovered, and an empty reel, upon which the sensitized band is wound as rapidly as it has been acted upon by the light.” Film on a roll.

By melding the portable camera with roll film, the first Kodak camera was soon introduced with the slogan, “You Press the Button, We Do the Rest.” Interestingly, Houston is said to have come up with the name Kodak by playing with an abbreviation of where he lived… northern Dakota or Nodak. Eastman later stated, “I knew a trade name must be short, vigorous, incapable of being misspelled to an extent that will destroy its identity, and, in order to satisfy the trademark laws, it must mean nothing.”

The new camera, which sold for $25, made it possible for any amateur to take good snapshots. It was small, lightweight and came loaded with a roll of film long enough for 100 exposures. Once the roll was used up, the entire camera would be sent in so that the film could be processed and the camera reloaded with a new roll at a total cost of $10; the lucrative business of film developing had begun.

Eastman Kodak flourished, and Houston died a rich man May 6th, 1906. His house was later moved to Bonanzaville, in West Fargo, where it’s available for tours.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from North Dakota Public Radio.

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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