The Man Who Made Your Selfies Possible

Each week, Mr. Reed will relate the stories of people whose choices and actions make them heroes. See the table of contents for previous installments.

In 2015, a new world record will likely be set: humans will record fleeting moments of their lives at least one trillion times over the course of the year. That’s how many photos we’ll snap, up from 810 billion in 2014, according to InfoTrends’ Worldwide Image Capture Forecast. About three-quarters of them will be taken with smartphones, which didn’t even exist a couple of decades ago.

Giants in the field of photography have enriched our lives far beyond the imaginations of the first few generations of Americans. While the first photographic process — called daguerreotype — was introduced commercially in 1839, decades of innovation and investment followed before picture taking was inexpensive enough to make it a national pastime. More than anyone else, the man behind that investment was George Eastman.

It was 115 years ago, in February 1900, when Eastman introduced the Kodak “Brownie” box camera. The price tag was one dollar; film sold for 15 cents a roll. Eastman was about to do for cameras what Steve Jobs would do for computers almost eight decades later: put exciting new technology within the reach of almost every American family.

The camera and camera phone are tributes to the spontaneous order of a relatively free, entrepreneurial marketplace, unplanned by politicians or bureaucrats. 

Whether you’re a camera buff or not, you probably have seen and perhaps have even used a Brownie. Nowadays, they show up at rummage sales and antique shows, but I can remember when they were still widely used in my childhood days during the 1950s. They were simple t…