Frank Alexander Brownell was born in Vienna, Canada to Myron and Paulina Culver Brownell on February 4, 1859. When he was 17, his millwright father encouraged him to peddle his woodworking and mechanical assembly trades in Rochester, New York, known as the "Flour City" because it was at the time the largest producer of flour in the United States. He quickly landed an apprenticeship with Yawman & Erbe, and in his spare time he constructed a plate camera that was purchased by the Union View Camera Company. This provided him with the financial means to marry Rochester native Helen A. Peet, with whom he would have a son and a daughter, and with the self-confidence to open his own shop on 282 State Street. He made cabinets as well as cameras, but it was his camera-making expertise that caught the attention of George Eastman, founder of Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company. In 1885, Mr. Eastman asked Mr. Brownell to make a roll film holder comprised primarily of wood that could be fitted onto the back of a camera. This was the first of what would be a long and successful collaboration.
Within a decade, the Brownell Manufacturing Company had established itself as one of the largest international producers of professional and studio cameras. Five years' apart in age, Mr. Eastman and Mr. Brownell were forever experimenting with camera designs that would be both trend-setting and profitable. In October 1887, Mr. Eastman proposed a camera concept that would later become the Kodak when it was introduced a year later. Mr. Brownell manufactured its wooden parts, which were then assembled at Yawman & Erbe. In 1889, Mr. Brownell became the principal designer of the first Folding Kodak camera. Two years' later, he designed Eastman's daylight-loading camera, but in April of 1892, his factory was seriously damaged by fire. What could have been a catastrophic loss due to lack of insurance was resurrected in a new building Mr. Eastman constructed for his chief designer on 333 State Street. In return, Mr. Brownell signed an exclusive contract with his benefactor. Within four years, the Camera Works factory was employing 700 people; by 1902, this figure had increased to more than 1,000 workers.
Mr. Brownell was also a social visionary, winning the respect of his employees by providing them with monetary productivity incentives, on-site meals, a hospital, and a library. When Mr. Eastman wanted his designer to create an affordable and easy-to-use camera for the amateur, the famed 'Brownie' was born. In less than two decades, Mr. Brownell designed many of Eastman's signature cameras, including the Bullet, the Cartridge Kodak, Eureka, the Flexo, Panoram, and Pocket Kodak. When Mr. Eastman proposed to buy out his collaborator for $130,090.64 while still retaining him as a design consultant for $12,000 annually, Mr. Brownell accepted the generous offer. In later years, he pursued other business interests, opening the Brownell-Trebert Company in 1906, which produced motors for automobiles and ships, the F. A. Brownell Motor Company, which operated from 1908 to 1913, and the Rochester Motors Company from 1913 to 1919. He also constructed 15-160 HP engines and provided the U.S. Navy with its first motor yacht fueled by gasoline.
Mr. Brownell became increasingly enfeebled after the death of his wife in 1927 and George Eastman's suicide in 1932. Like many businessmen in the 1930s, he lost most of his savings. Once described by George Eastman as “the greatest camera designer the world has ever known,” Frank A. Brownell died in Rochester on February 2, 1939, two days before his 80th birthday.
2013 The Families of Adam Keith (URL: http://mykeithfamily.com/index_files/Page2880.htm).
2007 Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), pp. 224-225.
2008 F. A. Brownell Motor Co. (URL: http://www.s363.com/FABrownell/index.html).
2006 George Eastman: A Biography (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press), pp. 83-84.
Return to Previous Page
Return to the History Librarium
Copyright © 2002 - 2019 Historic Camera