Frank A. Brownell: The Father of The Modern Camera

Frank A. Brownell. Credit: http://historiccamera.com/cgi-bin/librarium2/pm.cgi?action=app_display&app=datasheet&app_id=2631&

Nowadays, it’s less common than it was twenty years ago for someone to walk into a shop and buy a dedicated camera. A device designed solely to capture images. Unless you’re a professional photographer, or at least an aspiring amateur photographer, the odds are that the camera on your mobile phone is more than enough to quench your photographic inclinations. But the digital cameras on our cell phones are based in many ways on the earlier digital cameras that are still sold separately, and those earlier digital cameras are based on the roll film, analogue cameras that our families still bought in the 80’s, 90’s, and decreasingly in the early 2000’s. But what were the roll film, analogue cameras that some of us still remember based on? I remember unto you, Frank A. Brownell. The father of the modern camera.

My Interest in Frank Brownell comes from the same place I first learnt of him. Which is to say it comes from a place of some uncertainty. Quite a while ago I had a dream about a man, in a shirt between blue and green, asking many different questions, seeking knowledge about something. Then I heard a voice mentioning a name with the word brown in it. Browning, Brown, Brownell, I’m not entirely certain. Clarity is not a consistent factor in all dreams. But the voice said that he was to the camera as Turing was to the computer.

In the modern age, people tend to dismiss their dreams more commonly than not. This is not without good reason. Many dreams are, to my eternal gratitude, meant to be dismissed. But I happen to believe that some are not. So the first thing I did upon waking up was hit the search engines. My first search was for the “Browning Camera”. I was half expecting results for the Browning firearms, but no. The results came up with Frank Brownell. A renowned camera designer and inventor, he was reportedly a major contributor to the design and invention of “The Kodak #1”, the first camera ever made by the storied Kodak company.

He designed other cameras for Kodak. The acclaimed and economic “Brownie” camera series released by Kodak began with one of his most celebrated inventions. And though it has been claimed with good reason that the “Brownie” moniker was a reference to the mythological domestic spirits of folklore, it is arguable that these cameras take their name from their inventor. Palmer Cox, the cartoonist, had illustrated some of these mythological beings as characters in his work, and his illustrations were frequently used to advertise the Brownie Camera. My favourite explanation for the camera’s name was that it was a combination of the two to some extent. Perhaps originally named for the inventor, then later associated with the popular illustrated characters to boost sales. The Brownie is remembered for being the first camera widely available to average working men. Before that, cameras’ high production costs restricted their purchase to professional photographers or wealthy amateurs.

However, Brownell’s contribution to the modern cameras we know today does not end with the very long running “Brownie series”, which reportedly only stopped in the 80’s. Brownell also invented the “Folding Pocket Kodak”. This was the first folding camera to utilise roll film. He also later designed Kodak’s first “daylight-loading” camera, allowing photographers to load films outside of darkened rooms. Believe it or not, Brownell did not begin his career as a designer or inventor of cameras, or even as a photographer. Brownell was originally a rather excellent cabinet maker. His skills in cabinet making brought him into contact with the production of box cameras, and the rest, as they say, is history. But just like this history doesn’t start with cameras, it does not end with them. After a long and successful career with Kodak, Brownell went to on to work in motor production, establishing the F. A. Brownell Motor Co. He further went on to attain the Vice Presidency of the East Side Savings Bank, before retiring at the age of 78.

Aside from being a designer, inventor, and businessman of some renown, Brownell is also described as social visionary because he offered his employees financial incentives to boost productivity. He apparently also provided them with a hospital and a library and meals on company property. In that regard, he was certainly ahead of his time. The hospital in particular is arguably a much earlier form of health insurance!

I don’t know, if Brownell is to the camera what Turing is to the computer. I don’t know if that voice I heard was a voice of authoritative truth from the beyond, or a statement of opinion someone had voiced, or even just thought in time. I don’t even know if the word I heard was “Browning” or “Brownell”. It may even have been the “Brownie Camera”, which sounds close enough for the first term in my online search. “Browning Camera”. I do not even know if the man in the blue/green shirt was meant to be Brownell, or me, or someone else.

What I do know is that photography, as we know it today, is heavily influenced by the work of Frank A. Brownell. We owe much of the modern camera to said work. I do know that looking him up online I found him mentioned, but a lot less than he should be. I do know that I had no idea who he was before I dreamt of him. These things that I know had me wondering if the dream came to me for a reason. For a purpose. Perhaps I was meant to be one of a few to help keep his memory alive. Until people remember him again and he gets his own Wikipedia page, at least. Hopefully a proper one and not a stub. Though at this point, even a stub would be a step forward, for the man described as “possibly the most influential camera designer of all time.”

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