The grandfather of cell phone cameras

It’s interesting, if a little disconcerting, that people of a certain age today remember when taking a picture and seeing the results almost instantly was quite exciting–and that people of a certain younger age today, who seem to think they’ve invented the “selfie,” appear to be totally oblivious to so much that has been accomplished before they were born.  Although taking pictures with phone cameras has become second nature to us, there was indeed a time when instant photos were new, even revolutionary.

In 1932, Edwin Land co-founded a company with his former Harvard physics professor for the purpose of developing and manufacturing polarizing filters for sunglasses and photographic lenses. Their work found several other applications in the fields of science and entertainment, and in 1937 the company was re-named the Polaroid Corporation.

Land was vacationing with his family in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1943, and had been taking photos of the trip. At one point, he took a picture of his 3-year-old daughter Jennifer, after which she asked why she couldn’t see the photo of herself right away. Land didn’t have a satisfactory answer, but the question set his mind working overtime. “As I walked around that charming town,” he explained years later, “I undertook the task of solving the puzzle she had set for me. Within the hour 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 dray camera which would give the picture immediately after exposure. In my mind it was so real that I spent several hours on this description. Four years later we demonstrated the working system to the Optical Society of America.”

In 1949, Polaroid introduced the revolutionary instant camera to the public. The first advertisements for it, such as this (somewhat cluttered) magazine ad, even credited Land as the inventor, in the fine print under the main copy, and his camera would henceforth be known as the Polaroid Land camera.

In late 1972, Land caused another sensation when he introduced the SX-70, a camera that, after taking a picture, mechanically ejected a card-like photo which would develop the image in the open air, enabling the photographer to actually watch the colors and details materialize within a minute’s time. The developing chemicals were encased under a dry, transparent protective shield, unaffected by the touch of a finger or anything else. This eliminated dealing with the sticky chemicals and negative paper that accompanied Polaroid prints as they were pulled from the earlier models. The SX-70 itself could be folded down into a flatter, 4 x 7 inch shape after use.

The ongoing competition between Polaroid and camera giant Kodak led to memorable TV advertising by both companies. Kodak preferred scenarios that tugged at the heartstrings, such as the “Times of your life” series set to Paul Anka’s tune, while Polaroid boasted a long-running series of spots with James Garner and Mariette Hartley trading snappy retorts as they demonstrated various new Polaroid innovations and camera models.

In the meantime, Polaroid spent a total of $250 million to build manufacturing facilities for the SX-70. The camera’s initial price tag was $180.00, plus about five dollars for a pack of ten prints. Life magazine called it “both a marvelous toy and a stunning technological achievement.”

Kodak developed its own instant camera in response, leading to a patent battle between the two companies, until Kodak ceased production of its camera in 1986. Land died in 1991, as changes in photography began to affect both companies. The novelty and convenience of instant photos began to wane, as services such as 1-hour film developing shops became more common. And, of course, the arrival of digital cameras was seen as a major threat, prompting Polaroid to introduce an early, unsuccessful digital model in 1996.

The company declared bankruptcy in October of 2001 and re-formed shortly thereafter, but stopped making its trademark instant cameras in 2007. It made another attempt to take on the digital photography market the following year, and stopped making instant film altogether in 2008, much to the consternation of its most ardent amateur and professional users.

But the story doesn’t end there. In 2010, a group called The Impossible Project (now known as Polaroid Originals) bought the trademark Polaroid name and intellectual property, with the goal of re-launching the manufacture of film and other products for use in vintage Polaroid cameras, including the SX-70 and older models. A Polaroid manufacturing center in the Netherlands was leased for continuing the production of the new supply of films.

And so, the “old-fashioned” method of taking instant pictures lives on, even in the age of cell phone cameras. Even Steve Jobs cited Edwin Land as a hero and major influence (alas, it won’t be long until people will be heard asking, “Who’s Steve Jobs?”) And, while the use of a Polaroid might trigger a “why bother?” response among younger generations, it somehow provides some comfort to those of us who remember the excitement and anticipation of watching an image come to life in our hands just seconds after clicking the shutter.

We’ll take a look at other gadgets and inventions that are common now, but were once brand new (and not that long ago), in future posts, in addition to the usual assortment of stuff about TV/movies/music. Watch this space!

Until next week…