This modest-looking little device actually rivals Louis Daguerre's first camera as one of the most important artifacts in photographic history.

This is where popular photography began. It was the very first hand-held camera, designed for use by amateurs rather than professionals and using film rather than glass plates as in earlier cameras. It was the literal origin of the "snapshot."

Invented by George Eastman and produced in 1888, this came pre-loaded with a long, 100 exposure roll of film yielding 2-1/2” round pictures. (Originally, the coined word "Kodak" referred only to this specific camera, not the company. Eastman started using Kodak as the company name in 1892.) After finishing the roll, the owner would ship the entire camera back to Eastman for processing, and installation of a new roll of film. The camera sold for $25, which was expensive for the time (almost $700 in today's dollars). Processing the film, printing paper pictures, and re-loading the camera with film cost $10 (equivalent to $275 today).

This camera is still loaded with a roll of original film from the early 1890s.

This first Kodak has a barrel shutter that proved to be expensive to manufacture and unreliable in operation. In 1889 Eastman updated the Kodak with a sector shutter and renamed it the Kodak No. 1 (though that was technically the second Kodak).

The barrel shutter rotates around a lens element inside the tube.

To take a picture the shutter spring had to be wound by pulling up on a string tied to a knob on the top of the camera, then it could be released by pressing the shutter button on the side. The film was advanced by winding the key. A brass indicator ring on top has a rotating wheel marked with a line; when that pointed to a mark on the bezel, it was ready for the next picture. There is no viewfinder. A large but faint V marking on the top of the camera served as a sight-line to help indicate what would be framed in the photograph.

This camera is complete with its original felt lens cover, original leather carrying case (missing strap), as well as the original wood shipping crate with Kodak paper label. It is also still loaded with an original roll of film. Factory records indicate that this specific camera was made in late 1888. (About 5,000 original Kodaks were made between mid-1888 and mid-1889.)

The left and right sides are faintly impressed with writing, only visible under raking light. The inscriptions both read “Wm. H. Bixby, Wilmington, No. Car.” (on one side “Carolina” is fully spelled out). The inside lid of the leather carrying case has a faint blue rubber-stamped marking “Property of Capt. W.H. Bixby / Corps of Engineers, US Army / Wilmington, N.C. USA.” William Henry Bixby graduated first in his class from West Point in 1873, and went on to become Brigadier General in the Corps of Engineers. He studied in Paris in the late 1870s and earned a Legion of Honor award for his engineering work with the French military. He was stationed in Wilmington, NC from 1884 to 1891. He likely marked his name and address on the camera and in the case as a precaution before sending the camera to Kodak for processing and reloading.

Captain (later Brigadier General) William H. Bixby, the original owner of this 1888 Kodak.

Although this camera is too rare and valuable to use today, I couldn't resist making one attempt at taking a picture with it. In the darkroom I cut a short piece of Ilford orthochromatic 120 film and slipped it between the remaining original film and the round mask, then went out to make a single test shot. Once I developed it I was delighted to find that it still works just as well today as it did in 1888. It is not easy to aim, but I was happy with the result, shown above.