Eastman Kodak Co.’s revolutionary Instamatic camera, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, is defined by its name: easy to use, simply and smartly designed and ready for the fleeting moment.
Because of it, picture-taking was made more instantly possible than ever before.
The name surely worked, as did the camera. Within two years of its March 1963 launch, more than 7.5 million Instamatics had been sold worldwide starting at $16 — a little more than $120 in today’s dollars — said Todd Gustavson, curator of technology at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film.
Today, the Instamatic, when compared to modern technology, seems a relic. But its relevance is all around. It is one of the precursors of 21st-century products and ideas, from the iPad to Twitter, that grab the public’s attention from the first day.
“One of my colleagues when I worked at Kodak said that the Instamatic was the smartest thing the company ever did,” said Rochester resident Ron Andrews, a former senior design engineer at Kodak.
All of Kodak’s cameras since the $1 Brownie was introduced in February 1900 strove to achieve George Eastman’s ideal of making photography universally accessible and affordable.
For a time at least, the Instamatic reached that promised land.
As with most things at Kodak, what looked simple and inviting on the outside was the product of hard work and ingenuity in the Kodak labs.
The mostly anonymous engineers and designers who worked at Kodak and lived in and around here outdid themselves with the Instamatic.
It hit the retail market with the force of transformation.
“The trade press saw how revolutionary the Instamatic was right away. The reviews reflected that,” said Gustavson, who is the curator of a special exhibit of the Instamatic, on display in its bright-yellow gift box complete with flash and batteries, just inside the entrance to the museum.
Gustavson said two things elevated the Instamatic above other cameras then on the market. It had a self-contained flash and it had a unique film canister or cartridge that, by dint of its design, solved the long-time problem of erratic film-loading. It was called the 126 cartridge or Kodapack.
It made the entire industry sit up and pay attention. And others began to work on similar versions.
“The cartridge was easy to load and remove,” Gustavson said. “It was essentially foolproof. I worked in a camera store and people used to come in to ask if I could load their camera for them. They weren’t sure that they were doing it right. The film cartridge took that fear away for many. Anybody could use this camera and load it in daylight.”
Between 1963 and 1970, more than 50 million Instamatics were sold. The engineer who came up with the 126 cartridge was Hubert Nerwin. His name is on the patent. But he’s not as celebrated as his work merits.
“Soon after the Instamatic was released, my mother bought me one, making me so happy,” Albert Mach said in a post on the museum website. “No more hassling with film in the dark.”
Jess Beckerman was visiting the Eastman museum along with her sons, Justin and Cole. She, and they, use digital cameras now. But she remembers her mother buying an Instamatic.
“We couldn’t get her to stop taking pictures,” Beckerman said. Hers was a house where cameras and film were a pursuit of delight and discovery. “My dad was taking movies back in the 1960s and 1970s.”
Sam Swayze of Fairport, N.Y., the retired manager of industrial design at Kodak, said he came to the company in 1968, five years after the Instamatic’s launch. He worked on the pocket Instamatic, an even smaller, more self-contained version of the camera. He met and labored with the engineers who designed the original. It was a heady time to be in the business.
“I remember being in awe of these people when I came to the company as a young man,” he said. “What they were, and what we all were, were crazy problem-solvers. We wanted to find solutions to the problem of making cameras as easy to use as possible.”
Another attribute the engineers and designers had in common was curiosity, Swayze said.
George Eastman was long gone by the time the Instamatic came out. But it was a validation of all he had done with the company.
The founder made it a point early on to create and staff laboratories that examined the science of film and cameras to an unprecedented degree, Gustavson said.
“This year is the 50th anniversary of the Instamatic,” he said. “But it’s also the 100th anniversary of the Kodak lab.”