Thomas Carroll Willson - (b. April 27th, 1877 – d. March 30th,1955) was an American pioneer of photography and inventor and manufacturer of cameras, printers and projectors. Willson was the First School Photographer and created the system that is still used today, The Willson Way. He filed his first patent for his camera invention in 1918 along with a second patent for a printer. Both were approved in 1920. His camera was unique at the time because he used large strips of 35mm film to take up to 500 photos. His businesses included Willson Magazine Camera Company and Vi-cam Company located 6022-24th Media Streets in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He filed his second set of patents in 1929 and they were approved in 1932. Willson Magazine Camera Company name was later shorten to Willson Camera Company and moved to a new located at 1395 Lawrence Road in Havertown, Pennsylvania.
Thomas C. Willson was born in Rock Hall, Maryland at Trumpington, on the Eastern Shore where he spent his time fishing and hunting along the Chesapeake. He went to school locally and as a young man in the mid 1890s went to Washington, D.C., where he worked as a photographer’s apprentice for the famous Boyce Photography Studio located 1325 F Street, NW. Willson stayed in a rooming house where he meet Charles Francis Jenkins and they become friends. Jenkins had a tremendous influence on the young man from Rock Hall, Maryland. Jenkins was working with movie film and had roles of 35 mm film unused. He gave rolls of scrap unexposed film too small for the movie projector to Willson. Willson tinkered with the film and created spools in a box that fit inside another box with a lense. Eventually Willson invented his camera and he could take 500 photographs that were stored in a wooden box and then later a metal box, independent of the camera. He walked all over Washington to take pictures of couples out for a strolles, tourists on the trolley, army camps, football games and sporting events. He would return the next week to sell the photos to his customers. In 1898, he opened his company, Willson Magazine Company, and two years later he married Anna Elizabeth Ryan (m. January 15,1902). They moved to Philadelphia, Pennsyvania. Throughout his life, he remained in contact with Jenkins, often known as the Father of Early Television.
Willson trained photographers how to operate the camera, how to take pictures with it and gave mailing containers to send back the film to be processed. The cameras were light and it made it easy for the traveling photographers. Two of the photographers trained by The Willson Way were S.P. Barksdale and (first name) Strawbridge. Later, they both established studios. Barksdale established his school photography business called Barkesdale Studio’s in Lansdown, Pennsylvania. Both studios still operate today as school photograpy companies and Barkesdale Studio still uses a wooden camera manuafacture by Willson Camera Company. Strawbridge operates on Hillsborough Road in Durham, North Carolina. Mr. Barksdale donated one of his Willson Way wooden cameras to the Willson Way collection, which was later donated to the Smithsonian Institute (1996). There are many other companies that used this process, but these two in particular continued a close relationship with the Willson Way. Mr. Barksdale, Mr. Strawbridge and Mr.Willson remained good friends throughout their lives.
It was said that George Eastman came to visit Mr. Willson in Philadelphia and requested to buy his camera invention with the patent. Willson would not sell and actually had a protype made of the camera in silver designed with a metal cassette of film inside. When the stock market crash of 1929 happened, it ruined the finances of both his companies. Thomas C. Willson was left only with his dream of mass producing his small camera, which never happened. Later, Kodak did come out with the Brownie Camera in the early fifties which was very similar to the protype made in the late twenties.
Thomas Carroll Willson, Jr. (b. 6-21-15 – d. 6-16-85) Son of Thomas C. Willson, who was also an American inventor and pioneer in plastic, joined the firm at a early age. He studied at Philadelphia Textiles School in Philadelphia and introduced plastic to create the laminated photo identification system for companies. In the forties and fifties, Willson Camera Company was the formost leader in photo identification with customers such as The Army, the Navy and U. S. Governement. Ref. Life Magazine, Febuary 21, 1940.
Thomas Carroll Willson died at age 78 in Newtown Square, Pennyslvania. He is interred at St. Denis Cemetery in Havertown, Pennsylvania along with his son, Thomas Carroll Willson, Jr., who died at age 70 in Somers Point, NJ. Collection of artifacts are located on file in the Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D. C.