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By Colin Harding on

Celluloid and Photography, part 2: The development of celluloid roll film

In the second of a series, Colin Harding investigates the role celluloid played in the invention of 'rollable' film.

In part one I looked at the first uses of celluloid in photography as a substitute for glass. The celluloid material produced by manufacturers such as Carbutt was intended primarily as sheet film and was too thick to be rolled. The development of a flexible and totally transparent photographic film was the goal of many experimenters. For years, attempts had been made to produce such films, using a variety of materials in the search for a substitute for glass that was flexible, rollable, tough, and transparent. The introduction of the Eastman-Walker roll holder in the rnid-1880s gave new impetus to this quest.

George Eastman himself was, of course, very much aware of the imperative to develop a practicable film that could be used in his roll holder if his system of film photography was to be commercially successful. Indeed, such was Eastman’s faith in the future of film photography that in 1884, he changed the name of his company from The Eastman Dry Plate Company to The Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company. At this time, the word ‘film’ was used to describe any form of flexible negative support. In practice it meant paper—used either as a negative material in its own right or as a support from which a emulsion-bearing layer of gelatin could be stripped during processing.

Eastman marketed both ‘negative paper’ and ‘American stripping film’. He was well aware, however, of the serious drawbacks associated with both and of the need to develop an alternative material for film photography. The three major figures involved in this quest were to be Eastman, his young research chemist, Henry Reichenbach and an unknown clergyman and amateur photographer, Hannibal Goodwin. Their work was to result in a ‘David versus Goliath’ battle that was to last nearly a quarter of a century.

Hannibal Goodwin

Hannibal Goodwin was born in Tompkins County, New York State, in 1822. After attending a theological seminary he became a Rector in the Protestant Episcopal Church. In 1867 he became Rector of the House of Prayer at Newark, New Jersey, a position he was to hold for twenty years. It was his work as a Rector that was to involve him in photography.

Goodwin used a magic lantern to give talks to his congregation. Unable to find the illustrative material he wanted, he took up photography in order to make his own lantern slides. Once started on his new hobby, he became an enthusiastic amateur photographer. In the hope of finding a substitute for heavy and fragile glass plates, Goodwin began to experiment with other materials. His entry in The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography explained:

Searching for a substitute for glass, his experiments drew him to celluloid, which John H. and Isaiah S. Hyatt, of Newark, had invented in 1869. While not technically trained, he taught himself sufficient chemistry to conduct his experiments intelligently and by the time of his retirement in 1887 he had worked out the basic principle of a celluloid film for photographic negatives. (i)

On 2 May 1887, the same year he retired from the Church, Goodwin filed an application in the US Patent Office for a ‘photographic pellicle and process of producing same’. The dictionary definition of a pellicle is ‘a thin skin or membrane’. According to the patent specification:

The object of this invention is primarily to provide a transparent sensitive pellicle better adapted for photographic purposes, especially in connection with roller-cameras.

Goodwin was not a chemist; his original patent application was broad, ambiguous and somewhat confused in its wording. For two years the application remained unissued, undergoing many amendments. By this time other inventors, most notably George Eastman and his chemist, Henry Reichenbach, had entered the field.

It soon became clear that there was a potential conflict between the various rival patent applications. It was not to be until 1898, after many rejections, amendments and appeals that a patent was finally issued to Goodwin, on 13 September 1898. By this time, however, George Eastman had been commercially producing celluloid roll film for over nine years.

The Eastman Company and Celluloid

Realising the problems associated with using paper as a photographic support, Eastman had been experimenting to find a flexible, transparent base for a photographic emulsion from about 1884 onwards. It was not until early in 1888, however, that he began seriously considering the possibility of using celluloid. He read everything on the subject that he could lay his hands on but, aware of his limitations, also set his young research chemist, Henry Reichenbach, to work on the problem.

Eastman had plucked Reichenbach from Rochester University in 1886 when he was still an undergraduate chemistry student. He had great faith in his new member of staff:

We have a young chemist who devotes his time entirely to experiments and we hope that he will strike the right emulsion sooner or later, but it may be a long job… He knows nothing about photography which was all the better. I told him what was wanted and that it might take a day, a week, a month or a year to get it or perhaps longer but that it was a dead sure thing in the end. (ii)

Eastman’s faith in his young employee was to be well rewarded. By the end of 1888 Reichenbach began to meet with some success, and by January the following year Eastman could contact his patent lawyers and tell them to prepare applications for patents relating to the production of celluloid films.

On 23 February 1889, Eastman presented samples of the new celluloid film to a meeting of the Board of Directors of the company. They unanimously approved the manufacture of the film on a commercial scale as soon as possible. A building was leased from Eastman’s old business partner, Henry Strong, and new equipment purchased. By March, Eastman could write to William H Walker, manager of the London branch of the company:

The new film is the ‘slickest’ product that we ever tried to make and its method of manufacture will eliminate all of the defects hitherto experienced in film manufacture… The field for it is immense… If we can fully control it I would not trade it for the telephone. There is more millions in it than anything else because the patents are young and the field won’t require eight or ten years to develop it and introduce it. (iii)

In April 1889 both Eastman and Reichenbach filed patent applications for the new film. These soon interfered with each other and with the application filed two years earlier by Hannibal Goodwin, thus setting in motion a legal battle that would drag on for over twenty years. Reichenbach’s application was granted on 10 December, 1889. By this time, Eastman’s Transparent Roll Film had already gone into commercial production.

The new factory was ready to start production in late May, but teething troubles meant that the first film for public sale was not produced until the end of August. By then, Eastman had already asked Gustave Milburn, head of the company’s sales force, to ensure that the photographic community knew all about it. On 30 July 1889, Milburn
addressed a meeting of the New York Society of Amateur Photographers:

Ladies and Gentlemen—it affords me the greatest pleasure to come before you tonight with the Eastman new Transparent Films. We have long been looking for an article of this kind, at the same time never expecting to realize our fond wishes. The Eastman Company have carried on a series of experiments extending over a number of years, under Mr Eastman and Mr Henry Reichenbach’s supervision, and the outcome of these experiments, I am happy to state to you, is a perfectly transparent and flexible nitrocellulose basis for a sensitive film. (iv)

In August 1889 the film was exhibited for the first time at the Annual Convention of Photographers, held in Boston, where it generated great interest:

The new flexible transparent film was also shown and attracted much favourable notice. There seems but little doubt that most, if not all the difficulties have been overcome, and that the new departure will be widely adopted. (v)

Once the new film reached the market in reasonable quantities, demand for it grew quicker than the company’s limited production facilities could cope with. Plans were immediately put in place to greatly expand capacity in America and also to build a new factory in Britain. By October demand was outstripping supply to such an extent that Milburn had to stem the rumours that the company had actually stopped making the film:

Last year at this time the only evidence the Eastman Company could show for their claim of having invented and perfected these thin films in continuous lengths were a few samples, but now they actually have the goods on the market, and the orders for the films are so great that although they have a large plant for the express purpose of manufacturing them, still they cannot fill but comparatively a small percentage of their orders, making some sceptical people say that they believe the Eastman Company have been forced to discontinue manufacturing the films. The facts are that the Eastman Company are working night and day on these films, and are producing from 600 to 800 lineal feet of transparent film, forty-one inches wide, per day; one third of this product going to Europe… We believe that it is only a matter of time when you all will use these films for outdoor photographing. (vi)

Transparent roll film comes to Britain

By the autumn of 1889, rumours about a new transparent film, sufficiently flexible to be rolled on to a spool, but requiring no stripping or special treatment, had begun to circulate in Britain. A few samples of the film seem to have found their way across the Atlantic before the end of the year but it was to be January 1890 before the Eastman Company felt in a position to formally announce its new product in Britain. On 9 January William Walker read a paper on the new rollable transparent film to the Camera Club, an event that was eagerly reported by the photographic press:

With the advent of the Rollable Transparent Films we are entering upon a new era in photography, which has been anticipated for many years as the natural sequence of methods lacking more or less well-recognised requirements, for whether it be true or not that no great invention ever comes to us unheralded, certainly no demand of modern times was ever more imperative and persistent than that there should be some transparent substitute for glass for the photographic negative. (vii)

By 23 January, Photography magazine could report:

Those interested in the new Eastman rollable film will be pleased to hear that it is now fairly on the market, and the company are shipping it daily, so that those who have been promising themselves the pleasure of sampling it can now get supplies from the company. We understand that the reason no announcement is made in the company’s advertisements of it is that the demand is already so great that they are hard pushed to supply the orders which come to them without advertising. VIII

A full advertisement did appear, however, in the British Journal Photographic Almanac for 1890:

It affords this company great satisfaction to be able to announce as the outcome of a series of experiments extending over a number of years, the discovery of a FLEXIBLE TRANSPARENT SENSITIVE FILM capable of being made in rolls for use in Roll-Holders and Kodak cameras. The backing of this new film is impervious to water, and unaffected by chemicals used in development. As thin and Flexible as paper and Transparent as Glass. It is developed the same as glass plate, and requires NO STRIPPING.

The process by which this new film is made has been worked out by the aid of an extended experience in making both glass and paper dry plates, and we can safely say that all the difficulties in both manufactures have been avoided in the new film, thus enabling us to present a material for negative making that has never before been approached either in uniformity or general freedom from defects. (ix)

The film was available in a wide range of sizes to fit the various roll-holders and the growing range of Kodak cameras (four different models by this time) from 31/4 inches wide at four shillings for twenty-four exposures to eight inches wide for twenty-four 8 x 10 negatives, at one pound and five shillings.

Early in 1890, Eastman had himself crossed the Atlantic in order to find a suitable site for building a new factory in Britain. He chose a seven-acre site at Wealdstone, near Harrow, and construction began almost immediately. Building and equipping the new factory took over a year and it was not until the end of 1891 that it was ready to start production of celluloid roll film.

In January 1892, a reporter from Practical Photographer magazine was given a conducted tour of the new factory. He described in detail the various stages in the production of celluloid film and gives a clear idea of just how cumbersome and slow the manufacturing process was:

Every morning, the quantities necessary for the day’s work are taken into a mixing room on the ground floor of the film-making building, and there they are mixed in intimate association by being churned in two revolving steam-driven churns. Each of these churns takes 500lbs of the mixture, and after it comes from them it is stored in big milk cans for a few hours until wanted. At the time of our visit the mixing for the day was completed, and the milk cans contained one ton of liquid celluloid, a viscid sort of liquid, something between treacle and bid-lime in appearance…

The two upper floors of the film factory are exact counterparts of each other, so that a description of one of them will answer for both. The whole furnishing of the room consists of six glass-topped tables, each eighty feet long and forty-two inches wide, along the sides of which run steel rails and endless driving chains. On these rails are run the machine for spreading the celluloid, and another machine for spreading the emulsion; and the chains are used for driving the same coating-machines.

About six o’clock every evening the coating of the table with celluloid is commenced. The coating machine, which primarily consists of a wide V-shaped trough, is placed on the rails at the end of the first table, along which it slowly travels, spreading a thin, even film along the whole length… All the while, eighteen enormous fans, like exaggerated screw propellers, are steadily revolving over the tables, keeping the air in motion to hasten the setting and hardening of the film. This hardening and drying is allowed to continue all night, and early the next day the film is coated with sensitive emulsion, which is spread in the same way as the celluloid.

The emulsion takes five or six hours to harden, after which the film is peeled from the tables, rolled on a big spool, and sent down-stairs to be cut and made up for the Kodaks…. The wide film… is then passed through a slitting machine, by which it is cut up to the widths necessary for the various sizes of roll-holders, and rolled on to narrow spools… the next process is the ‘spooling’ which consists of winding the lengths for forty-eight or a hundred exposures on to the spools that are used in the cameras… the filled spool is then ready for passing through to the packing department, to be made up in the various wrappers in which it reaches the public. As people often speculate as to how much film is used in a year, we would point out that the exact daily out-put is nine hundred and sixty feet, forty-two inches wide; for twelve tables, each eighty feet long are coated every day. (x)

Goodwin v. Eastman

Throughout the 1890s, transparent celluloid roll film was manufactured in ever-increasing quantities by both Eastman and other firms that had by this now entered the market. All this time, Hannibal Goodwin’s patent application, first made in 1887, remained in the US Patent Office where it underwent numerous amendments and appeals. Goodwin’s lawyers did not give up, however, and, in 1898, made yet another appeal to the Board of Examiners of the Patent Office. This time their arguments were successful and Goodwin was finally granted a patent on 13 September 1898, more than eleven years after his original application had been filed.

In 1900 Goodwin decided to start manufacturing celluloid film himself and set up a small company, the Goodwin Film and Camera Company. A factory was set up but before production could start, disaster struck. Goodwin was knocked down by a street-car and died from his injuries. After his death, Goodwin’s patent was sold to Anthony and Scovill, who took out a lawsuit for patent infringement against Kodak in December 1902. The Goodwin-Eastman lawsuit dragged on for over ten years through a succession of courts, and over five thousand pages of testimony were collected.

Finally, on 14 August, 1913, Federal Judge John Hazel ruled that Goodwin’s patent had indeed been infringed:

… not on the ground that Eastman had copied the process, but that Eastman’s process, though an improvement, came within the Goodwin patent claims. (xi)

Eastman, quite naturally, objected to this ruling and appealed against it. In March the following year, this final appeal was rejected and later that year Eastman paid his competitor five million dollars as compensation. A huge amount—but tiny compared with the profits he had earned from sales of celluloid film in the intervening years.

Goodwin had fought for years to be acknowledged as the inventor of celluloid film. After his death, his claims were finally accepted, but by then it was too late. Who, these days, has heard of Reverend Hannibal Goodwin? As for Eastman, the rest, as they say, is history.

In part three of this series, I shall look at the role played by celluloid in the invention and development of moving pictures.

Part 1: Celluloid as a substitute for glass

Part 3: The beginnings of cinema


i The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, 1933, Vol 12, pp. 377-378.
ii Quoted in Reese v. Jenkins, Images and Enterprise, London, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987, p. 110.
iii Ibid, p. 131.
iv The American Amateur Photographer, September 1889, p. 115.
v The American Amateur Photographer, September 1889, p. 90.
vi St Louis and Canadian Photographer, October 1890, pp. 389-90.
vii The Journal of the Camera Club, January 1890, pp. 28-35.
viii Photography, 23 January, 1890, p. 53.
ix The British Journal Photographic Almanac, 1890, p. 222.
x The Practical Photographer, 1 January 1892, pp. 4-7; 1 February 1892, pp. 31-35.
xi For a detailed account of the lawsuit see H. W. Shutt, ‘David v. Goliath: the Patent Infringement Case of Goodwin v. Eastman’ in History of Photography, Vol 7, No. 1, January 1983, pp. 1-5.

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