15-34 Segment 1: A Triumph of Genius: Edwin Land and Polaroid

These days “instant photography” means digital pictures that can be cropped, enhanced, captioned and uploaded to the Internet in a matter of minutes. It wasn’t that long ago, however, that “instant” photography was a lot more cumbersome and complex, and as novel as the latest tech gadgets are today. We’ll hear about the genius who made the first instant photos happen, take a look at his other inventions, and hear how his success led to a battle of giants in the photography world.

Host: Gary Price. Guests: Ron Fierstein, author of the book, A Triumph of Genius: Edwin Land, Polaroid, and the Kodak Patent War.

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A Triumph of Genius: Edwin Land and Polaroid

Gary Price: Everywhere you look these days, people are taking photographs with their tablets, laptops, digital cameras, and – mostly – their phones. It used to be that the tradition of taking family photos was saved for special events, and the call to “say cheese!” was heard mainly during the holidays and in front of Mt. Rushmore on vacation. With pictures instantly available on a digital device – and passed around on the Internet almost as fast, the need for film and processing has moved from the mainstream into the niche market of artists and hobbyists. It wasn’t that long ago, however, that the desire for “instant” photography led a young inventor to create a camera and film technology that would satisfy that need for speed. His name was Edwin Land, and his company was Polaroid.

Ron Fierstein: It turns out that Edwin Land was the father of the technology, the founder of Polaroid, and the more I learned about him, the more amazed I was that he was this unbelievably important American inventor and technologist, and so few people, including myself, had ever heard of him.

Price: That’s Ron Fierstein, and he wanted the world to hear about the amazing man and his groundbreaking inventions, so he wrote about them in his the book A Triumph of Genius: Edwin Land, Polaroid, and the Kodak Patent War. And it was that “patent war” that first brought Land’s accomplishments to the author’s attention.

Fierstein: When I was a young lawyer, I was on a team of lawyers at a New York law firm called Fish & Neave that represented Polaroid, and they were representing Polaroid in a major intellectual property battle with Eastman Kodak over the technology involved in instant photography or one-step photography. We’re all familiar with Polaroid cameras where they would shoot out a picture and you would have a print in your hand within a minute or so. Well, this is a major battle and I didn’t realize until I got involved in that, that when you look at a Polaroid camera and it said Polaroid Land camera, I didn’t know that Land referred to a person. I always thought it referred to the ground like they were trying to distinguish that from an aerial camera or an underwater camera.

Price: Edwin Land was born in Connecticut in 1909, and as a child had an insatiable curiosity about light and how it was manipulated in devices such as stereoscopes and kaleidoscopes. Fierstein says that Land had one special interest as a teenager and that was finding a way to remove the glare from automobile headlights – a big safety problem back in the 1930s. So the young man abandoned a traditional education to strike out on his own.

 Fierstein: He got obsessed with the issue of polarized light. Polarized light is merely the ability of some substances to take the glare out of bright light and physicist had observed this phenomenon back in the 17th century. People could think of all kinds of practical uses. “Gee, if we had something that could do that, we could take the glare out of automobile headlights, we could take the glare out of a light in terms of glasses and so on.” But no one could come up with a practical material for hundreds of years, but Land solved that when he was 19-years-old and dropped out of Harvard to commercialize it. He found a way to create a very thin sheet of plastic that could polarize light. By the time he was 20 maybe, he had the equivalent of a 250 million dollar company selling his polarized sheet.

Price: Today we use that same technology in sunglasses, windshields, camera filters and even displays like those giant lighted billboards in Times Square in New York City. As you might expect, the government was very interested in the technology.

Fierstein: He made this invention in the late 20s, and by the mid 30s he had huge companies selling them. Well then, shortly thereafter World War II came along and it was very apparent immediately to the military and to our government intelligence services that there were a million uses for this material in the war effort. So, Polaroid ended up making all kinds of things for the military, and in my book I have a wonderful picture: the cover of Time magazine with General George Patton standing there with a pair of Polaroid goggles that they made specially to take the glare out of the desert sun.

Price: But what about the “instant pictures”? The technology that Polaroid and Land are most remembered for? Fierstein says that in the beginning of his book, there’s a charming incident that brought the idea to Land’s attention, but he’s not going to reveal it here. He will say, however, that it came from the desire for “instant gratification” that in the 1940s was not a hallmark of photography.

Fierstein: Back in those days it could take two to three weeks to see your prints once you shot a roll of film because it had to be processed and sent off to a laboratory and so on and so forth. All of a sudden it dawned on him that maybe this is something to attack and to try and solve – to give people a print in their hands shortly after they snapped the shutter. So he became obsessed with that like other issues and that was 1943. By 1947, four years later, he was in a position to demonstrate his new process, which he did in New York City at the meeting of the American Optical Society, and it was in the stores a year later in 1948.

Price: That’s where the Polaroid – Kodak relationship started. Fierstein says that the two companies had a symbiotic relationship that lasted for decades and helped make both of them a lot of money. As long as the Polaroid instant camera was ejecting photos with all of the paper, the waiting time and the sticky coating that the earlier models required, everything went well. But when Land came out with the new, truly instant camera in the early 70s, things between the two companies went south.

Fierstein: They went from being mentor-protégé to harsh enemies over this course of time, and Kodak of course was Polaroid’s first customer for its polarized material. Kodak turned it into camera filters. When Land decided to start his experiments in photography, he went to his colleagues at Kodak and they gave him all the materials he needed (chemicals, paper, all of that stuff) even though they had no idea what he was up to. When he came up with his first system, he went back to Kodak and asked them to manufacture the negatives because it’s a very complicated thing to do. So, Kodak actually manufactured every Polaroid negative right from the beginning, well into the 60s and for more than twenty years. When Land showed them the prototype for SX-70, which I said earlier is the first one that would come out of the camera and develop with no manipulation, no garbage left over, nothing. For the first time, Kodak said you know, “Wow, this might impact our dominance of the amateur photography market.” So [Kodak said to] Polaroid, yeah, “We’ll help you with this one, but only if you let us make some of this film and sell it in our own trademark yellow boxes.”

Price: Polaroid wouldn’t accept that deal, and the two companies broke off their relationship. Fierstein says that when Polaroid was figuring out how to make the film it needed, Kodak was trying to develop its own system.

Fierstein: When Kodak finally came out with its competitive system in 1976, of course it turned out that they utilized some of Polaroid’s technology without a license, without permission. So, Polaroid, the former protégé had to sue its mentor for patent infringement and out of that came one of the most important intellectual property battles in American history.

Price: The case took place in Boston federal court, and there was a lot of interest there since Polaroid Corporation was a Boston institution. But the media picked up on it and the lawsuit – which charged that Kodak had violated 10 of Polaroid’s patents – made national headlines. One of the high points in the case when was when the private and reclusive Edwin Land took the stand to testify.

Fierstein: Fight as they may and try as they may, the Kodak lawyers were never able to shake him and he gave very dramatic testimony that at the end of the day really helped Polaroid win the case.

Price: Fierstein says that Land continued his inventing, and when he died in 1991 was second to only Thomas Edison in the number of patents he owned. After retiring from Polaroid, Land continued his obsession with research and created the Roland Institute, which is now part of Harvard University.

Fierstein: What he wanted to do is create a place where scientists could do pure research. That is research on something interesting without having a predetermined idea of how it could be exploited or how you could make money on it. He was just always interested in pure research. So using his own money, he setup an institution – a beautiful institution, architecturally and so on – to really nurture scientists doing pure research, and he worked there for the rest of his life. That institution continues in his name.

Price: Edwin Land’s Polaroid Corporation is no more, although the name was bought by others and is still in use today. Fierstein says that there’s a great deal that young entrepreneurs and researchers can learn from Land’s life story. In fact, a modern day technological whiz counted Land as his mentor.

Fierstein: Steve Jobs absolutely idolized Edwin Land, and modeled most of his career after land. There’s no doubt in my mind that Polaroid was the Apple computer of the 70s for sure in terms of being a glamorous technology company that everybody followed closely. Edwin Land really was the original Steve Jobs, and Steve Jobs acknowledged that.

Price: Fierstein says that Land and Polaroid – as well as Kodak – were among the first socially responsible large corporations. He says that when the apartheid problems exploded in South Africa, Land closed up Polaroid’s plant there in protest. He also set up education programs for employees and served the U.S. government on a number of projects for free. You can learn more about Edwin Land and his legacy in Ron Fierstein’s book, A Triumph of Genius, available in stores and on his site, TriumphofGenius.com. For more information about all of our guests, log onto our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You can find an archive of past programs there as well as on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.

 

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