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The Camera: Its 175-Year Technological and Social Evolution

In modern history of technological evolution, possibly none eclipse in time and product variations that of the camera. 500 Cameras, authored by Todd Gustavason, Curator of Technology for the George Eastman House, and published by Sterling Signature, offers a superb visual presentation of camera history.

Before the airplane, and long before computers, photography reached “hobby” status with the 1888 introduction of Eastman Kodak’s Kodak Camera and the widely distributed Number Kodak Camera in 1889. Today, the camera is as common as it is seemingly indispensable and remains a rapidly evolving technology, represented to many by the indispensable camera-clock-calendar-app-loaded smartphone.

To give perspective to the vastness of the camera’s history and its evolutionary development, compare the growth of camera with the relatively short and rapid growth of the early mass-produced personal computers. Beginning in 1977 with the Apple II, Pet 2001, TRS-80, early computers had RAM memory measured in kilobytes, and low resolution, small screens. Today's eight gigabyte RAM, budget-priced laptops—weighting less than 3 pounds, capable of producing musicals, airing television programming and having almost limitless applications in our daily lives—arrived at our doorstep in a meager span of approximately 35 years.

Equally astonishing was the relatively short period of time from the first airplane flights in 1903 in very dangerous biplanes created by the Wright Brothers to, just 54 years later in 1957, cruising over the oceans in the comfort of a Boeing 707 jet-powered commercial aircraft. A brief 12 years later two men set foot on the moon.

Of these three modern-century evolutions, the 173 years of the camera’s continuing evolution has likely seen more special applications and designs—with sometimes humorous variations. Design improvements began immediately following the earliest Giroux daguerreotype camera, considered the first camera manufactured in quantity in 1839. Along the way numerous forms of detective cameras, cameras designed for space, Mickey Mouse cameras, compact point and shoot cameras, the forerunner of the digital camera (designed by Kodak in 1975, weighing over eight pounds and larger than a toaster) and the now ubiquitous cell phone camera gained, sometimes brief and other times long, favor with the photographic community.

With hundreds of camera creations from all over the industrialized world, it is almost impossible to get your arms around the history of, and variations in, the camera's evolution. Almost. While there are several good books that document the history of the camera, the recently published 500 Cameras is easy to read and comprehensive, with a generous 8.5 x 8.5 inch page format for the rich color photographs and succinct descriptions. Cameras are arranged chronologically in sixteen sections, including “Spy,” “Subminiature,” “Dry Plate” and “In Camera.” There are also pages of historical summaries introducing each group. All of the cameras are part of the George Eastman House technology collection, one of the world's largest collections of photographic and cinematographic equipment.

When reading the book, if that is what you can call looking at 500 camera descriptions, I discovered that, decades before Edwin Land introduced the world to the wonders of Polaroid photos, the Dubroni camera achieved similar results in 1864! The process was not as easy as Polaroid cameras would provide almost a century later, or as convenient. This is just one of the many interesting factoids that I uncovered when thumbing through the pages of 500 Cameras.

This book will be appreciated as both an authoritative resource and a pleasurable read by cameraphiles, teachers, serious students and people who care to learn more about the rich history of an apparatus that brings great enjoyment to many and is considered indispensable others.





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