Velox Photo Paper

Baekeland, a chemistry student, worked on an improved photographic paper. Before his invention, photo papers required bright sunlight for exposure. This constraint limited photo developing to daylight hours on sunny days and made photo print results unpredictable. Baekeland created a high contrast reliable photo paper. His paper was sensitive enough to work with gas lighting, that was easier to control and predict than sunlight. He named his paper Velox and sold it to Kodak in 1899.

Baekeland’s share of the $750,000 in proceeds was $215,000, a fortune at that time. Putting the amount into context, a 6-bedroom house in Philadelphia cost $15/month to rent and the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court was paid $10,500/year. Although photo paper would make much more money over time for Kodak, Baekeland was an extremely wealthy young man.

Few companies have repeatedly proven more short-sighted over time than Kodak and, true to form, the sale came with a 20-year non-compete. Rather than hire the brilliant inventor the company locked him out of the market for decades. Instead of creating more products for Kodak, he eventually focused his efforts on plastic and invented the wildly successful Bakelite. Baekeland died extremely wealthy.

Linotype Machine

The Linotype machine vastly reduced the cost and time needed to prepare printing plates, making newspapers and books faster and less expensive to print.

Described as “the next Gutenberg,” Germany immigrant Ottmar Mergenthaler made typesetting vastly simpler. Whereas before his innovation typesetters would have to look for individual letters, arranging them together, his innovation did this automatically, line-by-line. The Linotype (Line-O-Type) enabled faster and cheaper production of printed material.

Individual letters sit next to one another in pre-Linotype equipment. Typesetting is the term for this process. Returning individual letters to their separate bins was a dull and laborious task. Eight pages were the maximum length of a newspaper before Linotype.

Instead of movable type, the Linotype machine used dies to cast an entire single line of text using molten metal that quickly cooled, called slugs. Finished slugs, stacked into a frame, act as a printing plate. Melted slugs enable reuse after printing.

Whereas Guttenberg worked in a coin mint, Mergenthaler worked as a watchmaker. Both had experience creating small precision parts using molten metals. Mergenthaler worked extensively with the New York Times while inventing the machine.

“I am convinced, gentlemen, that unless some method of printing can be devised which requires no type at all, the method embodied in our invention will be the one used in the future; not alone because it is cheaper, but mainly because it is destined to secure superior quality.”

Ottmar “Ott” Mergenthaler

Roll Film & Roll Film Camera

Kodak’s original camera contained plates. Later versions contained one-hundred exposures; customers would take their pictures, mail in their camera, and the company mailed back developed pictures and a refilled camera.

Roll film changed all that, vastly lowering the cost and complexity of photography and eventually enabling the creation of movie film. Ordinary people could purchase and load film then remove it for processing, a process that did not change significantly for more than a century.

Roll film and roll film cameras were invited by Scottish immigrant brothers Peter & David Houston of North Dakota. In 1881 they patented their innovation.

George Eastman approached Houston who sold him the rights to the patent and rights to the film for $5,000 in 1889. Legend has it that Houston wanted to have his own company merged with Eastman’s and considered the name Nodak, for North Dakota. Eastman thought the name unusual and changed the “D” to a “K” naming it Kodak.

Inflation calculators from that early are wildly inaccurate. To contextualize, a blacksmith — considered a highly skilled occupation — earned $15.54 per 60-hour week in 1880. Little data exists for North Dakota but, in Iowa, houses cost about $300-$500.

The brothers OK from their innovation and another 21 patents Houston licensed to Eastman. He purchased a 4,000-acre farm that, today, remains a tourist attraction in Bonanzaville, West Fargo, North Dakota.



Nicéphore Niépce

The Niépce brothers were hell-bent on creating earth-shattering technology and they did so, twice. First, they created the internal combustion engine. Their native France was still adjusting its socioeconomic climate after the revolution so Claude went to England trying to commercialize the engine. During that time, Nicéphore invented photography.

This brings us to a definitional moment, the difference between inventing and innovating. Inventing something typically means creating something new, that might or might not have value. Innovating refers to the process of creating a new product or service that has enough value that somebody will pay.

The Niépce brothers were world-class inventors. But, due partly to circumstances partly beyond their control — their timing sucked; their native France was a basket case during this time — they failed to build their work into substantive businesses.

While Claude was trying to sell the engine, Nicéphore decided to experiment if there was some way to capture the image on the back of a camera obscura. Eventually, he focused on silver-based chemistry, inventing photography.

Photography vastly reduced the price of creating images. Before photography, creating a realistic image required sitting for days with an artist. Even then, the final image might or might not look like the actual image. Nature painting was constrained due to limitations on paint chemistry.

All the sudden humanity was able to photographically preserve images without the use of a portrait painter. This vastly reduced the cost and increased the accuracy of preserving images.

Despite that Niépce invented photography Louis Daguerre eventually stole most of the credit and money. However, historians, in time, corrected the record.

Henry Fox Talbot allegedly invented a similar type of photographic process and patented it. He claimed his experiments were performed in 1834, trying to gain a priority date to the Niépce brothers and also Daguerre. There’s a fine argument his work was little more than patent trolling though he did, later, invent a better type of photo paper.


Lithography allows highly detailed drawings to be inexpensively reproduced at high volumes.

Before lithography, printing remained similar from Gutenberg until Senefelder’s lithographic process.

Senefelder worked as an actor and playwright. Unable to earn a living, he turned to printing as a trade but could not afford the typographic fonts and materials. Frustrated, he started experimenting with cheaper ways to print music.

According to legend, he wrote a shopping list on stone with a crayon then realized he could press the paper to the stone and the crayon would transfer. From there, he experimented with chipping away from the stone all portions except that he wished to retain ink, inventing a crude version of the modern printing plate.

Senefelder patented and expanded the use of his lithographic process. Soon, he realized that highly detailed drawings could be used for printing rather than simply letters. He used multiple stones to print different colors that could be blended together for color printing, chromolithography. Lithography quickly spread throughout Europe.

Movable Type Printing Press


Gutenberg’s father was a minor royal and his mother came from a merchant family; they lived in Mainz, Germany. His father was in charge of running an ecclesiastical mint; they created coins. Growing up, Guttenberg was essentially a jeweler. Gutenberg’s father died in 1419, leaving an inheritance but also a problem. Guttenberg’s father was a royal, barring him from the trade guilds; he could not make jewery. However, his mother came from a common line so he was not a royal, making him ineligible to run a mint or anything similar to what his father had done.

Since it was impossible to hold a traditional job, Gutenberg left, moving to Strasbourg, to work on a new innovation. During the 1440s, Gutenberg envisioned a better way to produce books, using movable type. Before his innovation, the state-of-the-art was to carve pages in wooden blocks, each page one block. This was a time-intensive process that required extensive refinishing to clean up the text. The few books produced were extremely expensive.

School teachers and University professors would read books aloud to students, explaining the material as they went along, while students took notes. Individual books were not available to students due to the high cost.

Movable Type

To lower the cost of printing, and books, Gutenberg invented movable individual letters. Arranged into a block these were then pressed onto a page, the printing press.

Gutenberg used his entire, sizable inheritance creating his press and, more importantly, the supporting infrastructure. He built a foundry and hired workers to make the individual pieces of metal type that were flat and consistent enough they could be arranged into a sheet for printing. Special paper and inks were created that could withstand the high pressure were developed. Finally, the press itself needed to be a more consistent overall pressure than presses meant grapes or other foods, where the press was meant to destroy whatever was being pressed.

Gutenberg decided to match the look of books from the era, which were artisanal pieces, crafted with beautiful variably spaced typography and multiple fonts. He created three entirely different variable spaced fonts, including one that could print in a different color. The elegant fonts vastly increased the cost and complexity of both developing and using his printing press. Eventually, Gutenberg ran out of funds and borrowed money to continue development.

By 1450, Gutenberg had returned to Mainz and was printing calendars and indulgences. In 1452 he borrowed more money to fund a new project, printing bibles. Due to the complexity of typesetting, it took Gutenberg years to create a relatively small number of bibles. By 1455 his primary creditor, Fust, either tired of the project or wanted what today would be called a liquidity event and sued Gutenberg for a debt that was by then about 20,000 guilders. Gutenberg lost, and his equipment, including his press and typefaces, were taken.


Despite Gutenberg’s loss, other printers saw his methods and rapidly copied using lower-cost, lower-quality equipment. They realized the multiple typefaces added enormous cost. For example, they could produce fonts for more than three entirely separate presses for the price Gutenberg’s fonts cost for one press. These good enough quality presses are what soon produced mass-market books. Gutenberg never meaningfully profited from his press though he was eventually given a small church pension. Gutenberg died poor. The location of the grave, of the greatest inventor in history, is unknown.

Gutenberg’s press vastly expanded access to printed material ushering in the reformation and the modern era. His press, along with the wheel and fire, is widely regarded as one of the three most important inventions in history.