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Volume 14, Issue 5 ~ February 2 - February 8, 2006

Burton on the Bay

By Bill Burton

I’ve Spent My Life at the World’s Fair

All those who come to the World’s Fair will find that the eyes of the United States are fixed on the future.

—President Franklin D. Roosevelt: April 30, 1939

I was among the millions who went to the 1939 World’s Fair in New York as war clouds hovered over Europe. I remember the day well. What the future would be like was bewildering to a 13 year old.

A New England country boy making the trip with other grammar school graduates, I was awed by many exhibits — including a sword-swallower and new polarized glasses that, when worn to watch a special black-and-white film, produced three-dimensional effects.

In the General Motors exhibit was Futurama, where people wound through tunnels to view what was billed as the autos and highways of 1960. In the AT&T building, where I saw dial phones for the first time, I won a free long-distance call. I tried to call Aunt MiMi in Vermont, but no one was home.

Had that call gone through, I’d have completed a call from a fancy, colored one-piece phone to an old-fashioned speaker piece, mounted on a polished oak box, with an earpiece dangling on a cord and a hand crank by which one would ring the operator to place a call. If the person receiving the call was on the same line, all the caller had to do was ring the number by turning the crank two long and one short rings, which was MiMi’s ring. Neither operator nor dial needed.

Awe inspiring also were the huge colored pictures in the Kodak building. The giant film manufacturer was unveiling with much fanfare a color film called Kodachrome. Color film, and you could take the pictures yourself with your Brownie camera, also a product of Kodak. What would come next? A telephone that could take pictures? A camera that can make calls?

The only drawback with the new film from Kodak was that you had to send it away, to Kodak’s home facility in Rochester, N.Y., to have it processed, a service you paid for when buying the film. That wasn’t much of a drawback, for back then one left black-and-white film at a drug store and waited almost a week for it to be developed and returned.

Neighbors Ishmael Gordon and Charlie Kingsley fascinated me by setting up a darkroom in which they developed photos themselves for neighbors and those in the village for 37 cents a roll. The typical box camera then took only eight pictures to the roll, but who needed more? Cameras were taken out of the closet only for special occasions.

The budding business soon folded; World War II broke out in Europe several months later, they joined the army and once again I had to wait a week to get back my black-and-white photos taken with my Bakelite (no plastic around then) Brownie. That was only when I had milked enough cows on a nearby farm at 12 and a half cents an hour to afford film and processing.

Technology’s Mighty

I read in The Sun the other day that film is no longer the biggest seller for Kodak. In the past year, digital imaging took over as the bread-and-butter business for the giant corporation founded in the late 1800s.

Film might have lost its popularity to instant digital, but I see by The Washington Post that the whole Kodak conglomerate hasn’t dropped in popularity. In 1925, the year before I made my appearance on this earth, Kodak was ranked No. 2, behind Coke, as the most popular brand across this nation. Last year they were still in that position — as were Kellogg, Gillette and Colgate still third through fifth).

Other things have changed since my big day at the World’s Fair in ’39. General Motors, which hosted the biggest attraction at the fair, lost more than $8 billion last year, its bonds are of junk status and Toyota is closing in as top maker of motor vehicles on the globe.

AT&T was broken up by the courts, and today it is only a skeleton of what it was. Kodak’s future is far from promising. Digital might be its moneymaker, but it’s behind Canon in that field, with plans to lay off another 10,000 employees — and that’s after passing out 12,000 to 15,000 pink slips in ’04.

My Life in Pictures

In 1880, the year after Thomas Edison showed off the first electric light bulb, George Eastman (of the company later known as Eastman-Kodak) first talked of using rolls of treated celluloid to capture pictures. He said the photographer would then send the whole shebang, camera with film inside, to Rochester and receive the pictures and a replacement camera.

Eastman, only 26 at the time, was a bit optimistic. His film and camera didn’t appear until 1888. The camera weighed two pounds, but mailing didn’t cost much then. From his idea was born the advertising pitch familiar for many years: “You push the button. We do the rest.”

That camera was called the Kodak, but not after anyone at Eastman’s company. He said he invented the name; he figured the letter K was lucky. It sure was. His film was used by a magazine, debuting about the same time as the film, which became famous for its pictures: National Geographic.

The photography scene changed as quickly back then as now. In 1900 came the camera that brought many households into the new hobby of photography. People wouldn’t say they had a camera; no, they had a Brownie. The camera sold for a buck; the film, which accommodated six photos, was priced at 10 to 15 cents. That was the birth of amateur photography.

When I was eight, my first Brownie, still tagged at a buck, came as a Christmas present. My first snapshot ever was of our dog Brownie, but he moved and it was blurred. It would be years before film fast enough to capture moving objects would be available to amateurs.

Now, three-quarters of a century later, everything is digital. You snap a picture, look into a screen at the back of the camera to be sure you got it the way you want and unload it into your computer or printer. Presto! You have a photo in color, any size you want. No more film or running to the drug store or camera shop.

Why couldn’t digital have come a decade later? Here I am with probably 50,000 negatives and pictures filed away over 70 years of amateur and professional photography. But now I’m considered a Neanderthal and subject to ridicule.

I don’t switch because in my 80th year, I’m intimidated by the thought of a new mode that would mean two separate filing systems. Just as I’m intimidated by the thought of trying to figure how to use a computer for more than writing columns. My foremost fear is that I will live long enough that Kodak will stop making film. And where will I be then? Enough said.

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