A Triumph Of Genius

11 minute read

Lessons learned

Good thing Land didn’t get too enamored with the polarized vehicle headlights idea to pursue anything else. That’s important when building fundamentally new technology — the potential applications should not be dictated by you, but by the market.

Also … God, is litigation slow! Kodak’s case vs. Polaroid took 14 years to resolve. 14 years!


A lifelong motto was: “If anything is worth doing, it’s worth doing to excess.” Land had learned early on that total engrossment was the best way for him to work.

“An education without a degree?” Wheelwright told him that he didn’t think the degree mattered. Land gradually concurred.

He rented a room on the sunny side of the hotel and arrived carrying nothing but a bowl full of goldfish. When the American Optical representative came to the room, Land showed him the bowl, which he had placed on a windowsill in the full glare of sunlight. “Can you see any fish?” Land asked. Of course, the man could not—until Land held a piece of polarized material in front of the fishbowl. The American Optical executive, who had seen every version of sunglasses on the market, exclaimed that “he had never seen anything like this.”

Show it. don’t explain it

Land employed a unique strategy for identifying good employment prospects. “I don’t care what the people know if they’re willing to work hard,” he once told Wheelwright, “and they consider it a pleasure to come here and work.”

Land had a penchant for bringing a variety of eclectic and unorthodox thinkers to Polaroid, giving them the basic equipment they needed for their research without much fretting about the short-term payoff, and just turning them loose for long periods of time. . . . Land generally left them alone, waiting for them to call him, or calling them in when he had a short term project that needed their special skills. This provided fertile ground for new ideas that might come to the fore.

Like Xerox PARC. Like Ford. They are on to something.

As Land ultimately recognized, the adoption of his system was fatally hampered by the fact that there was no competitive advantage for any car company in using it first. Since all cars needed to incorporate the technology as simultaneously as possible, it was either going to be all, either voluntarily or as directed by the government, or none.

No network effects kick off without the initial intrinsic benefit

Indeed, one of Land’s great strengths as a scientist, one that made him virtually indefatigable, was his understanding that to research necessarily meant to endure without discouragement the “error” part of the “trial and error” axiom.

This is crucial.

Land had him pose and then took his photograph. He turned the crank and out came the sandwich of negative and positive. In a minute, Land peeled away the print, showed it to the audience, and handed it to the president. According to McCune, “It astonished everybody . . . everyone went wild.”

the one-step camera “appealed to Americans’ innate love for instant gratification.”

Th> e journey from the moment in Santa Fe when his daughter asked her pivotal question to a credible demonstration for Eastman Kodak was achieved in just over two years, while the full commercialization occurred in less than five years.

impressive even by todays standards

An art student of Land’s friend, Clarence Kennedy, she had absolutely no scientific training. Yet she apparently had the right stuff for Land and excelled in his laboratory under the tutelage and inspiration he provided.

According to Rogers, Morse emulated Land’s laboratory style, which was to propose the hypothesis, to test the hypothesis, to modify the hypothesis, to test with another experiment—[the investigation proceeding like] a sequential train moving at high speed, several hypotheses and experiments per hour. And yet the environment was calm. The results seemed more like the magical growing of a plant in time-lapse pictures.


“My first ambition [for my one-step film was] neither to wash it nor to use a print coater,” Land later confessed.64 However, while inconvenient, the print coater turned out to be hugely effective, providing black-and-white prints that proved perfectly stable for decades. Customers accepted the procedure without complaint, and thus “the first and only real crisis in sixty-second photography” was averted.

Sympathetic customers are a key pre indicator of a product’s success

Land’s “aim was to produce the most perfect picture-making process, and he felt that I, an exacting photographer, could provide important feedback. Since I balanced creative ideals with a practical approach, were I pleased with his product, so too might other creative and professional photographers.”

The feedback loop

I think whether outside science or within science there is no such thing as group originality or group creativity or group perspicacity. I do believe wholeheartedly in the individual capacity for greatness. . . . Profundity and originality are attributes of single, if not singular, minds. Two minds may sometimes be better than one, provided that each of the two minds is working separately while the two are working together; yet three tend to become a crowd.

Consistent with his philosophy of “turning his people loose [on scientific investigations] for long periods of time,”1 Land had allowed Rogers to work without any interference for almost six years.

Wow. Just, wow.

In the 1970s, Land convinced President Nixon to authorize the Keyhole 11 space satellite, one that used a space telescope aimed at earth to provide the finest intelligence pictures yet.

Photos from above, 45 years ago!

To find a solution, Land moved up to Rogers’ laboratory and, with a small group of people, “went at it day and night.”90 Early on the morning after Labor Day in 1962, Land called Mervis and asked him to come to the laboratory.

Wow (again)

film—the elimination of the need for a print coater—was a clear example of Land’s indefatigable attitude toward research. “Almost every day . . . we took on things which people might think would take a year or two,” he said. “They weren’t particularly hard. What was hard was believing they weren’t hard.”

“One thing about Land—when he is doing something wild and risky, he is careful to insulate himself from anyone who’s critical. It’s very easy in the early stages to have a dream exploded.”

Testimony to the importance of isolation of negative feedback. Sometimes it’s important (coming from customers) and sometimes it’s detrimental.

We designed the camera as if we had solved the problem, and carried the camera all the way through engineering while doing the basic research on the chemical task of bringing the picture directly into the light.”

When asked later how he could have taken such a risk—having committed to a camera design and to building manufacturing facilities before a final solution to the project’s greatest challenge had been found—Land reminded a reporter of one of his basic tenets, steeped in his personal brand of indefatigable confidence: “If you can state a problem, then you can solve it. From then on it’s just hard work.”

“Land was no longer simply an ingenious inventor and customer; he was an enlarging and possibly troublesome competitor.”

Although Kodak was aware that the “license agreement [they received] was not really going to be meaningful” because it covered technology that was “rapidly going to be obsolete,” Petersen had convinced Eilers to let him pursue it “as a matter of pride.”

Moving quickly, he brought a small number of engineers, including Wareham, together into a room in his Osborn Street facility and joined with them to tackle the problems with the camera.

Never afraid to pull up his sleeves and get busy.

As Wareham later recalled with a grin, Land said, “You’re allowed one engineering failure and you’ve just had it.”

Dr. Land had an uncanny way of making an individual an expert by telling him that it was his job to be that expert, that important decisions would depend on the results of his work, and that the results were needed quickly. Yet the intensity of the work was balanced by good humor, by intervals of celebration, by time taken to contemplate technical and social consequences on all sides, and by the sense that the work was a shared responsibility.

Polaroid, led by the charismatic and enigmatic Land, had become the Apple Computer of the mid-twentieth century. It was arguably the most admired and glamorous technology company in the world. A loyal fan base of consumers and investors eagerly anticipated its new products.

“We don’t do market surveys. We create the markets with our products.”

The supreme confidence underlying Land’s decision to move ahead had always been his singular attribute, and in many ways the real secret to all of his and Polaroid’s success.

conducted a press conference prior to the start of the meeting. As reported by an observer, Land took the podium and casually took a “smallish camera out of his pocket, held it aloft and put it back in his pocket.”14 That was it. He did not demonstrate its operation; he didn’t even open it.15 He did comment, however: “The way it opens is unprecedented and is a delight.”

Steve Jobs, an admitted Land disciple, at his company’s annual meetings.

So that’s where Steve Jobs got his flair :)

Land was just following his basic equation: more secrecy created more mystery, and that, in turn, created more excitement.

Land acknowledged that the initial peel-apart system was but a stepping stone towards his idealized concept, admitting that Polaroid’s first system “didn’t quite make it as you know, although we did do well enough to keep our company going and growing, well enough so that we had the luxury during the last ten years of going back to the full-grown dream of a system in which all you did was look at the image in your finder, press a button, have something come out through a pair of steel rollers, and end up with a dry, finished, shiny, beautiful picture.

Medium term solution to fund long term goal.

It was an elegant system of camera and film that the Kodak engineers ultimately dubbed “a masterpiece of engineering.” It was readily apparent to all that Polaroid’s system was far superior to the product Kodak had in development at the time.

Kodak’s marketing executives were forced to admit the obvious: “We see no unique consumer benefits in the proposed Kodak program at this time.”

What a situation! im dying to know what happened next

In apparent desperation, a KPDC memo directed Kodak engineers to “not be constrained by what an individual feels is a potential patent infringement.”

Oh no you didn’t Kodak (they did.)

Even though Polaroid experienced some bugs in the SX-70 as 1973 began, as Bill McCune later explained, the introduction continued because “we felt it was important to get the product on the market as rapidly as possible so that we would learn from the customer’s use of it and from the marketing aspects and customer service.”

But Land had little interest in such a system, preferring the elegance of the leather-encased, fully automated folding SX-70 camera made of metal, not plastic.14 Although some development work was conducted at Polaroid toward a more economical model, Land did not consider it a priority at this juncture.

Snap up the high end of the market while you can

The breadth and intensity of Polaroid’s research over the years thus resulted in a correspondingly comprehensive collection of patents covering both the technology embodied in its commercial SX-70 system and alternative approaches to many of the key camera and film features. Polaroid regarded this as a legitimate intellectual property strategy for securing the fruits of its labors.

Kodak’s announced willingness to license other companies to manufacture cameras that would use Kodak’s film, something that Polaroid had never done.

Kodak vs Polaroid.. Microsoft vs Apple. The parallels in their approach to market domination are uncanny. Polaroid focused on price, Kodak on volume.

Polaroid’s longtime mentor had become its archenemy.

Polaroid was selling more cameras now than it had been before Kodak introduced its competing products.

Land resisted providing simple and straightforward answers to even simple questions.

The incongruity was inescapable between the testimony this expert had just given for almost two weeks, belittling so many mechanical features of the SX-70, and his previous views on the same camera, published before he had been retained as a hired gun to testify for Kodak.

Land had always had a problem in praising colleagues directly and personally.

A few years later, immersed in pure research, and having authored a stack of scholarly scientific publications, Land proclaimed that at the Rowland Institute he was “now living out the dream I have had since I was seventeen years old.”

After three and a half years of deliberation, and nine and a half years after the case was filed, Judge Rya Zobel broke perhaps another record by finally announcing her decision in the landmark case of Polaroid Corporation v. Eastman Kodak Company.

“It is worth noting . . . that the harm Kodak will suffer simply mirrors the success it has enjoyed in the field of instant photography. As one court has observed,” she wrote, “the infringer ‘should not be heard to complain’ when it loses its gamble and reaps predictable results.”11

After Polaroid also threatened to appeal, the two parties, at long last, settled the case for $925 million (more than $1.6 billion in 2014 dollars) on July 16, 1991.14 It was fifteen years, three months, and twenty days after the lawsuit had begun. The final award was much less than Polaroid had sought and much more than Kodak thought it should pay.

Kodak elected to go forward nonetheless because management believed that through its patent clearance process—which, incidentally and perhaps conveniently, had found not a single Polaroid patent that Kodak might have infringed to be valid—they had “managed the risk to a low level.”

Polaroid remained wedded to the technology it had pioneered and reportedly “turned down flat” an offer to partner with Japan’s Hitachi Ltd. on its version of a filmless camera.

Alas, they missed the next bus

As Land liked to say, “Every creative act is a sudden cessation of stupidity.”

Jobs admiringly assured Land that in building Apple, he had tried to emulate the ideals Land had described to him.

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