The snapshot war

The snapshot war

With $800 million a year at stake, Polaroid and Kodak went for their guns. Watch the battle develop before your very eyes

Michael Enright June 14 1976
The snapshot war

The snapshot war

With $800 million a year at stake, Polaroid and Kodak went for their guns. Watch the battle develop before your very eyes

Michael Enright June 14 1976

The snapshot war

With $800 million a year at stake, Polaroid and Kodak went for their guns. Watch the battle develop before your very eyes

Michael Enright

For most of the year, Edwin Herbert Land, the austere founder and chairman of the Polaroid Corporation, keeps pretty much to himself. He declines invitations to speak, stays out of the newspapers and divides most of his time between his office-laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a country place in New Hampshire. Once a year, though, in April, Land appears, like some new spring animal, before the annual meeting of his shareholders. The event is unalloyed corporate theatre. Speaking to the 3,000 or so stockholders who jam the film warehouse in Needham, Mass., he quotes poetry, refers to his favorite philosopher, the Frenchman Henri Bergson, and generally massages the expectations of his investors. Sometimes he likes to take a crack at his competitor, the

Eastman Kodak Company of Rochester, New York: “Our new system takes such gorgeously intimate close-ups that we may call it the Intimatic.” But when he talks about his own works, the instant cameras and the magic film, he is not talking about mere products, he is communicating visions. His camera is more than a a camera—“Its symbiotic, biologic unity opens new thresholds of communications.” It is impossible to imagine the chairman of General Motors talking that way about his cars.

When Land made his appearance in the Needham warehouse this spring, he was in no mood to be funny. In a tightly measured voice that barely concealed his emotions, he told his shareholders that their Polaroid Corporation was going to sue Eastman Kodak for stealing Polaroid’s ideas about instant photography. The suit was filed in Boston in the United States District Court for Eastern Massachusetts. Specifically it charged Kodak with infringing on 10 Polaroid patents, six relating to the film and four involving the camera, the Polaroid SX-70. Land told the crowd in the warehouse: “The only thing that keeps us alive is our patents ... This is our very soul that we are involved in; this is our whole life. For them [Kodak] it’s just another field.” For a moment, the shareholders were silent. Then they gave the chairman of the board a standing ovation.

Americans take five billion pictures a year. The photography business is the second or third fastest growing industry in the economy. Until Edwin Land came along with his instant cameras in 1947, picture takers had to wait days for the drugstore to tell them what bad photographers they were. The 60-second camera wedded the North American thirst for instantaneous gratification to the desire to be creative at something, even if it meant a hasty snapshot of baby making his first fist. The idea of one-step photography came to Land in 1943 while he was on vacation with his daughter in Santa Fe. The three-year-old Jenny asked her father how long it would take before she could see her picture. “Within the hour,” says Land, “the camera, the film and the physical chemistry became so clear that with a great sense of excitement I hurried to the place where a friend was staying to describe to him in detail a dry camera which would give a picture immediately after exposure.” Land took his idea to Kodak, then and now the monolith in amateur photography, but while they were impressed with the technology they thought of it as a gizmo, a quirky thingamajig of an idea that would have no market. Of all the remarkable things about Edwin Land, perhaps the most telling is his persistence. He had invented a camera that nobody needed. Now he set about developing a market—kindling the desire, the untempered demand to have one. He hired creative people, paid them well and made enormous demands on their talents. He built his industry to the point where last year Polaroid recorded worldwide sales of $812,703,000.

In 1972, the Polaroid Land camera was succeeded by the Polaroid SX-70, a complete, compact, instant, color photographic process. The Polaroid Land camera required a lot of fiddling; all the photographer had to do with the SX-70 was compose the picture, focus it and push a button. It was an invention of wondrous dimension. For $250,000, Sir Laurence Olivier said so in a television advertisement. And now, fouryears later, Kodak, the unbelieving giant, was trying to copy his idea, his genius. Two weeks before Land’s startling performance at the Polaroid shareholders’ meeting in Needham, lawyers for Kodak Canada Ltd. walked into Federal Court in Ottawa and filed a statement of claim against Polaroid. Kodak, in an unexpected legal manoeuvre, was asking the Federal Court to nullify nine Polaroid patents. Kodak argued that the patents issued to Polaroid should never have been given in the first place, that the processes covered by them were not new at all but “a mere aggregation of elements which were wellknown in the art.” Both parties submitted 99 pages of documents, technical and legal material which will take a Solomon to interpret.

The Ottawa court action, though little noticed in the press, was the opening salvo in a monumental litigation that will take years to resolve, because while Land had been dazzling the industry with his creations Kodak had not been sulking in its darkrooms. For 10 years, the people at Kodak House in Rochester had looked with envy at Polaroid’s monopoly, but they knew that Land was cagey. He had erected a complex wall of patents around his inventions to protect them. In some cases, according to industry experts, he would order patents for processes that his people had developed but not marketed. This infuriated Kodak, because it seemed Land was drawing an impenetrable curtain around his empire. For years Kodak lawyers studied Polaroid’s patents and then advised that the company go ahead with the new camera system anyway, knowing full well that Polaroid would probably sue.

Seven years ago, Kodak scientists went to work on their own version of an instant photographic process. They wanted the camera to be simple to operate, easy to

carry and capable of producing high quality color prints. But where Polaroid had to make use of a small group of scientists working in Cambridge, Kodak was able to call upon a cast of thousands in Kodak plants around the world. Technologists in Harrow, England, Vincennes, France, and

Rochester began development of a new “imaging chemistry” for the film. Researchers in Rochester worked on the camera. The prototype was called the Plywood Brownie. Whole new buildings were constructed to house the assembly line that would turn out the cameras. The result of all this research and development is the EK-4 and EK-6 instant color cameras, which were introduced in Toronto and New York in April. Mindful of the need for a media splash, Kodak Canada gave one of the new models to each of the 40 reporters who attended the Toronto unveiling. The cameras, said Kodak, were not gifts but “evaluation units.”

The Kodak EK-6 does the job, but it lacks the panache of the Polaroid SX-70. If only because the SX-70 was the first, it continues to fix the imagination on its ingenuity. Not only did Land invent the camera, he invented most of the technology that went into it. To create it, he and his people had to invent or discover whole new techniques in chemistry, electronics and optics. If any one of the techniques failed, the SX-70 was doomed.

One of the most confounding things about the SX-70 is the film. Land, who is a bit of an environmentalist, did not want his customers leaving garbage all over the country, so the negative and the final picture had to be contained in the same package (this was not the case with the original Polaroid camera). The film unit would, in effect, become a tiny darkroom. But to achieve this he had to invent a substance that would cover the picture while the developing chemicals went to work and then disappear so the final picture could be seen. And the dyes that colored the print had to be extraordinarily permanent. A team of 25 chemists worked for four years to produce the filtering chemical that Land called an opacifier. On November 4, 1969, 50 of the company’s top scientists crowded into his color lab and cheered as the opacifier slowly disappeared to reveal a perfect color print.

The camera structure itself produced almost as many problems, not the least of which was the delivery system, a complex series of actions that result in the photographer being able to hold the finished print in his hand. In the SX-70, it all starts with the button. When the button is pressed, two of the mirrors move up, allowing the image to reflect light to the film. The shutter opens and closes, recording the picture. The exposed film is pulled forward to a set of rollers which crush a line of pods containing the developing chemicals. The chemicals spread across the face of the exposed film. The film is then pushed through the rollers to the outside, the film counter moves one notch and the camera is ready to shoot again. All this takes 1.5 seconds. In order to make this happen, Polaroid scientists had to implement a small motor that would give off enough bursts of energy to set the process in motion. The solution was the motor of a children’s small toy which-a Polaroid scientist found in a hobby shop in Boston. Even with all this technology, the inventors had to have a power source. Since Land was adamant that the camera could be no thicker than one inch, it was clear that the batteries could not go in the camera. So they put the battery in the film pack. The battery is less than one quarter of an inch thick, is disposable and yet throws off enough power to generate the complex series of electronic actions.

All told, the years of development, the new technology devised probably cost the company half a billion dollars. The entire exercise was unconventional, even dangerous in terms of the money involved, but Land has never been governed by convention. “The only reason I did all of this is because 1 knew 1 loved to take pictures and there just wasn’t any good way of doing it.” The camera was more than an industrial development for Land, it was a manifestation of his ego, his creativity and, some say, his arrogance.

Edwin Herbert Land was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the son of true Yankee parents. In high school he had near perfect marks and was ahead of his teacher in the understanding of physics. He went to Harvard but was too engrossed with his own experiments to finish his formal education. He became interested in optics in his teens, and in 1928 he developed the process of “polarization” of light. He created a new plastic that filtered light in such a way as to remove glare. He founded the Polaroid Corporation in 1937, During the Second World War, he found ways to remove glare from bombsights and goggles. His first marketable creation was a pair of Polaroid sunglasses. Land is a perfectionist. He gets up at six-thirty every morning and begins his day with a series of hurried phone calls to key employees. If a corporation can be embodied in one man, it is Polaroid. There is no official organagram. Land dominates the company’s full corporate function. He tends to be conservative in implementing objectives— “We try to do a few things magnificently”—yet he insists that the company be a progressive corporate citizen. After the Kent State murders of 1970, employees were urged to send a message of their choosing to President Richard Nixon at company expense. Some 2,200 employees responded. Even Polaroid’s competitors admit that Land has to be ranked in any pantheon of technological innovators with Edison and Bell. Small wonder that he responded as he did to Kodak’s challenge. They were not merely trying to copy a camera system; they were trying to replicate the genius of Edwin Land. It could not be tolerated.

Patent law is as complex and tentacular as the circuitry of a computer. By its ripple effect, products are granted or denied access to the market, and companies live and die according to the solidity of their patents. A patent fight turns judges into engi-

neers, takes years to resolve and atrophies the brain of any layman foolish enough to study the miasma of detail. The principle is straightforward and rather admirable. If you invent something new in the world, you should be entitled, temporarily, to the right of exclusivity. There was a rough system of patent protection in force in Venice 500 years ago. In 1623, in the reign of James I, the English parliament passed a law of monopolies, providing protection for any “new method of manufacture” for 14 years or twice the length of craft apprenticeship. In Canada and the United States, a patent lasts for 17 years and it is conceivable that a patent fight could last almost as long. The job of the patent lawyer is to educate the judge in the technical characteristics of an invention or a process so that he can make an enlightened decision.

Kodak responded to Polaroid’s U.S. suit in a rather miffed way. It was understandable. In its publicity for the EK-4 and EK-6, Kodak never hints at the remarkable technology Polaroid developed. Rather it implies that instant photography was there all the time, like uranium, and Kodak is simply mining it in its own way. Officially Kodak said that Polaroid had “intentionally drafted patent applications to be exceedingly lengthy, obscure and virtually inextricable... and which obfuscate the alleged invention therein.” Unofficially, Kodak executives were cheesed off with Polaroid’s suit. “Loads of people invented cars,” said one management spokesman. “Dr. Land [the title is honorary] invented an instant camera and so did we—independently. We’ve got as much right to invent an instant camera as he. And we’ve got as much of a right to a share in that market as he. Just because they’re small and we’re big doesn’t mean we are going to sit back and let them keep their monopoly forever.” The litigation hasn’t stopped Kodak from launching an intensive advertising campaign in Canada. Between now and the fall, Kodak will tell the public about its new cameras with billboards, television spots, newspaper ads and, beginning this month, full color magazine insertions. To get dealers interested, Kodak will pay up to 100% of dealer advertising costs.

All this for a camera that whirrs and bumps and produces a color photograph in only a few minutes. More than an exercise in mechanics, it is an indulgence, a milestone of vanity in a society that bought the electric toothbrush and the home hair dryer. It says that America is safe and powerful as long as there is a missile in some silo and an instant camera in the glove compartment. Yet,'undeniably, there is something about a magnificent machine, whether an SX-70 or a Concorde jet, that transmits an aura of accomplishment, a heralding of ingenuity. The color cameras of Polaroid and Kodak do more than take quicky photographs; they stand as a testament to the energy and society that made them possible.