A Kodak Moment

So it was 1945, in the summer, and Eastman Kodak started getting some strange complaints.

You see, in addition to Kodachrome and mass market films used by amateur and professional photographers, they also did work in Medicine, inventing and producing X-Ray plates (not that it’s the only market, they’re also used in in manufacturing to examine parts for defects). These started showing up with pre-exposed areas.

Now I don’t know if you’ve ever done any time in corporate defective product resolution but it normally goes a little something like this- you call a cubicle drone, they fill out their return form, and say something encouraging like “I’m very sorry. We’ll ship a replacement immediately. Please return the unsatisfactory parts in their original packaging if possible and we hope you will continue using our quality (whatever it is).”

What happens next depends on the value of the item, how often defects are showing up, and how irate the customer is. If it’s something stupid and cheap like toilet paper the receiving guy at the return warehouse makes a note of the tracking numbers on the product and tosses it in the trash (yes, they also ask you on the phone but customers are hopeless and always give you the wrong ones). Corrective action consists of having some suit from corporate going to the plant and screaming at the hapless line manager that they’ve exceeded their quota for the week, month, quarter, year and gosh durn it better not happen again or there will be consequences.

Consequences I tells yah.

And X-Ray plates are not toilet paper. They’re pretty expensive, Doctors and Radiologists get really umm… forceful, and the rate of return was high. Also it was a puzzle. They’re clearly labeled with lot number and production date and Kodak both samples these things and retains some for future testing. No problems there.

Of course, being Kodak with a lot of physicists sitting around waiting to be abused by doing jobs you’d normally give to a loading dock grunt, they assigned Julian Webb. If it were Pfizer it would have been an epidemiologist.

As it turns out this was a good thing. I think it was hyper-smart of him to discover that the packaging came from a single source on the Wabash River in Indiana since that’s more in the loading dock grunt/epidemiologist mindset, but I seriously doubt either of them would have gone down to the lab to grab a Geiger Counter to find out if it was radioactive.

Which it was.

Soon enough the same problem started turning up in packages using material from an Iowa River plant. Where was this radioactivity coming from?

Well, it was coming from the water used to process the cardboard packaging of course. This takes a lot of water which is why the plants are by rivers. Then how did it get in the river? Well, rivers are great big drainage ditches and it could have come from anywhere.

Or everywhere which is what they found when they started sending out field teams with Geiger Counters. So that’s kind of a dead end but you know, with high price sensitive stuff like X-Ray plates you don’t just quality control the thing itself, you do the same with the packaging.

During the initial testing of course nobody thought to swipe the stuff with a Geiger Counter because… why would you? It’s just a stinking cardboard box. However they did have some samples stashed away and when they looked at them- yup, Summer 1945.

Hmm… what else happened in the Summer of 1945? Something to do with radioactivity. Bueller? Bueller?

Several inquiries have been received concerning a heavy explosion which occurred on the Alamogordo Air base reservation this morning. A remotely located ammunition magazine containing a considerable amount of high explosives and pyrotechnics exploded. There was no loss of life or injury to anyone, and the property damage outside of the explosives magazine was negligible. Weather conditions affecting the content of gas shells exploded by the blast may make it desirable for the Army to evacuate temporarily a few civilians from their homes.


Actually the Department of War (renamed the Department of Defense in 1947) made the information public on August 12th 1945 so it wasn’t exactly secret but they were still kind of pitifully ignorant about fallout and the idea that it could travel from New Mexico to Indiana was thoroughly denied.

Kodak on the other hand was fairly sure it had it’s culprit. The nail in the coffin was in January 1951 after they moved the Nuclear Test Site to Nevada and mere days later a Geiger Counter at Kodak headquarters in Rochester, New York, picked up the fallout.

Two months later Kodak decided to sue.

Here’s where it gets complicated.

What Kodak really was is a chemical company specializing in image capturing. As a result they did a whole lot of work for the Military, particularly in the creation of high resolution films for reconnaissance. They came to a settlement where they would be notified of Nuclear Tests in advance so they could prepare. Kodak kept the whole thing secret (as did the Government needless to say).

Now there are two tangents you can take, or both at the same time.

You can get (justifiably) outraged at the fact that the reality of fallout over considerable distances was concealed by the Government from it’s citizens despite indisputable knowledge of its deleterious health effects.

Or, if you think unconventionally as I do, you can say to yourself- what a great plot for a Cold War Spy Novel! You’re a low level Soviet agent assigned to Kodak to keep track of their Spy film (and really, how low level is that?) and suddenly discover that certain processes and procedures are changed before Nuclear Tests. First of all you have to prove it to yourself while maintaining your cover, and then you have to convince your skeptical handlers.

It’s a classic and I’ll warn you not to steal it because it’s already in development and while I may not sue your ass off (Led Zeppelin and all) I’ll probably extract a hefty settlement when you peddle the movie rights.

My inspiration-

Kodak Was Baffled by Damaged Film. The Truth Lay Far, Far Away
Jun 25, 2016 12:34 PM CDT

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