“Like visiting a shrine,” is how Steve Jobs described a meeting with Edwin Land.
The founder of Apple adored Land, the co-founder of Polaroid, a pioneer of instant photography that with its mix of innovation, aesthetics and focus on consumer utility was in many ways the Apple of its day. Land was not only “one of the great inventors of our time”, according to Jobs.
“More importantly, he saw the intersection of art and science and business and built an organisation to reflect that.”
Like Jobs, the adopted boy to whom he became a sort of father figure, Land was driven, sometimes to the point of obsession, a demanding taskmaster and occasionally difficult to deal with.
Land’s relative obscurity today reflects the fact that the inventions for which he was best known were rendered largely obsolete by the very digital revolution that made Jobs into a business hero and cultural icon. The demise of film, linked to the rise of digital photography and mobile phones with top-quality cameras, contributed to Polaroid’s bankruptcy in 2001 and that of its old rival, Kodak, 11 years later.
Yet as Ronald Fierstein’s book demonstrates, Land was truly a great, both as an inventor and a businessman.
After dropping out of Harvard, he was still only 19 when he filed for his first patent in 1929, for a “sheet polariser” that he created in an effort to reduce glare from car headlights. By his death in 1991, he was responsible for 535 patents, beaten only by Thomas Edison and Elihu Thomson, the men whose companies merged in 1892 to form General Electric.
Some of his inventions helped America in the second world war: airmen in the Enola Gay observed the nuclear mushroom cloud over Hiroshima through Polaroid goggles.
Land was eminently quotable. Mr Fierstein lists several “Landisms” that give a flavour of the man.
“If you are able to state a problem…then the problem can be solved.” “Optimism is a moral duty.” “What the physical sciences teach the social sciences is how to fail without a sense of guilt.” “If anything is worth doing, it’s worth doing to excess.”
The core of the book is Polaroid’s patent-infringement lawsuit against Kodak, the then-dominant firm in the photographic-equipment business, which ironically had been Polaroid’s first significant customer back in 1934.
After Kodak launched a camera allowing pictures to be developed instantly in 1976, Polaroid sued, alleging that this infringed several patents underlying its long-established instant camera. Following a lengthy trial, in which Land was an articulate and decisive witness, Kodak was eventually found guilty of violating most of the patents cited by Polaroid and, in 1991, accepted a bill for compensation of $US925m, still the largest fine ever paid in a patent lawsuit.
Mr Fierstein, a member of Polaroid’s legal team, provides far too much detail about the court battle, as old soldiers reminiscing of past triumphs are wont to do.
Readers unfamiliar with Land should read the final two chapters first, for the context that makes the story of his life not only fascinating but significant. The successful lawsuit against Kodak marked a turning point in American corporate law, which had become weak in its enforcement of patents.
Today, courts are typically keen to uphold patents. Last month Apple was told to pay $US533m in compensation for patent violations relating to its iTunes music software.
Indeed, there is a growing body of opinion that the patent regime is now too strong, encouraging “patent trolls” who buy patents in order to bring lawsuits based on their violation, and so discouraging innovation. In the 1950s, a similar anti-patent movement argued that teams were responsible for most innovation and did not need the incentive of a patent to encourage their creativity.
In a much-cited speech in 1959, Land was dismissive of this view, insisting that the individual inventor still mattered and needed the incentive that a prospective patent provided. This provoked widespread debate about the role of intellectual property and earned Land the sobriquet “Champion of Patents”.
Today’s critics should think about his concluding words: “There are a thousand new fields ready to be opened. Only a handful of these will be explored by large corporations, leaving many areas untouched. Without the protection of the patent system, young scientific entrepreneurs cannot be counted on to develop the rest.”
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