Sean Lahman: Book reveals Kodak’s secret work
Bradley Paxton uncovers remarkable tale of Kodak work in recently released book.
If you talk to ten people in this town you’ll get ten different opinions about where Eastman Kodak Co. went wrong.
But Bradley Paxton, a Webster resident who spent 32 years with the company, thinks this sort of lamenting misses the bigger picture and overlooks the tremendous innovations by the company and the technologies its researchers developed.
“The Kodak bankruptcy is depressing for everyone, especially for the people who worked there,” Paxton said. “They ask themselves, ‘What did my career amount to?'”
Paxton asked himself that question, and began documenting the projects he had been involved with during his career at Kodak, from 1960 to 1992. He was general manager and vice president of both the Electronic Photography and the Printer Products Divisions, and the director of Electronic Imaging Research Laboratories, responsible for all the electronic imaging related research.
His list of Kodak projects made him feel pretty good. “The truth is that the world is a sweeter planet because of all we did.” Paxton said. “It’s sad that it didn’t save Kodak, but that doesn’t make it less meaningful.”
Paxton has turned that information into a new book called “Pictures, Pop Bottles and Pills: Kodak Electronics Technology That Made a Better World But Didn’t Save the Day” published by Fossil Press.
It chronicles 50 years of Kodak’s advances in electronic and digital technology, and the story it tells is remarkable. It shows the energy of Kodak’s research labs that drove folks to constantly push the limits, solve new problems, and to take what was best today and make it better tomorrow.
The constant drive to innovate, crucial for any business, made it a competitive environment. They weren’t necessarily competing with each other, but with the rest of the world and with the limits of technology itself.
And often, that work was done without fanfare.
One example of that is recently declassified work Kodak did on spy satellites, from the late 1960s through the mid 1980s. Paxton worked on camera modules for some of those satellites, known by the codename GAMBIT. After the program was declassified, Paxton went to see some of those satellites on display at the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum. “My wife was astonished because she had no idea that I’d worked on them,” he said
Paxton also was involved with NASA cameras sent to photograph the surface of the moon, searching for safe spots where the upcoming Apollo missions could land. “The lunar orbiter was not a slam dunk. It was not guaranteed to work,” Paxton said. ” It was like threading a needle from the other end of a football field.” If the NASA engineers could pull off the journey, the folks at Kodak weren’t about to let them come back without the images they needed.
Paxton will discuss that project and others in a talk called, “Kodak Contributions to Space Photography,” at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the Dryden Theatre at George Eastman House. The lecture will be followed by a question-and-answer session and a book signing.
As Paxton’s book shows, technology always moves forward. Steve Sasson’s 1975 digital camera prototype produced an image just 100 pixels square. By 1986, Kodak produced the first megapixel sensor at 1,000 x 1,000 pixels. Today’s iPhones have an 8 megapixel camera. “The 40 megapixel cameras are coming soon,” Paxton said. “It’s exciting, I can’t wait.”
Lahman’s patents column appears on Sundays. Follow him on Twitter @SeanLahman, or reach him at (585) 258-2369.