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| 4 minutes read

Edwin Land's Patents for Instant Photography and the Polaroid Camera

In my last post, we looked at George Eastman's 1885 patent for the Kodak camera, the first portable, easy-to-use camera that brought photography to the masses. In this post, we fast forward 60+ years and turn to the major innovations of Edward H. Land, the founder of Polaroid.

Conventional Photographic Processing: A Darkroom Tale 

Since the inception of photography in the early 1800s, all the chemical processing (the chemical baths, washing, drying, etc.) required to transform exposed film (the latent image) into a negative image and a positive image (the final print) took place in a darkroom. Thus, amateur photographers typically had to send the roll of exposed film, or the entire camera (e.g., the original Kodak camera), off to a lab for development, and weren't able to see the final picture until days or weeks later.  

Instant Photography: Inspired by a Toddler 

While on vacation with his family in 1943, Land took a picture of his three-year-old daughter, who became upset when she couldn't immediately see the photo.  According to (inventor and girl dad) Land, who had studied optics and developed polarizing products such as film for the Polaroid Corporation (founded in 1937), this event set him off on a long walk to think through how to create instant photography. Years later, he recalled that "within an hour, the camera, the film, and the physical chemistry became so clear” that he immediately set off to speak with his patent attorney.  (Insert happy lawyer face emoji.)

A Layered Film Unit: Bringing the Darkroom to Your Hands 

What Land ultimately developed (as described in his U.S. Patent No. 2,543,181, filed in 1948) was a film unit that contained various layers, along with a number of cell-like chambers (also called sacs or pods) that were filled with chemicals (e.g., developer, solvent). The chambers were sealed using a brittle plastic, such that the film was dry when installed into the camera. But when the film was stretched or compressed, the chambers would rupture and release the chemicals evenly across the layers, eventually spreading and producing the negative and positive images. In this way, Land effectively put all the operations of a darkroom into the film itself.

The Land Camera: The First Commercially Successful Instant Camera 

Polaroid's first camera, released in 1948 and called the “Model 95” or the “Land Camera” (shown here), employed Land's instant photography system. After taking a picture, the user had to manually release the film (thereby rupturing the chambers and releasing the chemicals for image development), wait about one minute, then peel off the negative backing to reveal the finished positive print.  Although the Land Camera and Polaroid's follow-on cameras required precise operation, the ability to see the final print nearly instantaneously was a huge hit.

The SX-70 Camera: True “One Step” Photography 

In 1972, Land took instant photography to new heights when Polaroid introduced the wildly popular SX-70 camera (shown here), a product that consistently ranks among devices like the Sony Walkman and the Apple iPod as one the most influential consumer gadgets of all time. The SX-70 included a newly designed film unit that was ejected from the camera immediately after exposure (no need to manually release the film), developed into the final picture in daylight (no need for a darkroom), and was fully integrated (no need to peel off a negative sheet). 

Land's U.S. Patent No. 3,753,392 (filed in 1971 and attached to this post) ("the ’392 patent") describes the structural components of the camera, including a foldable housing, motor, gear train, and “pick” (or “film-engaging member,” labeled 88 in Figures 2-4) that operated to advance the exposed film through rollers (labeled 40 and 42 in Figure 1) and out of the camera. The rollers compressed the film and ruptured the chemical-containing chambers to trigger image development. The patent claims are directed to the entire “photographic apparatus” including a cassette of thin, flexible film units and a camera for receiving the cassette and advancing each film unit, subsequent to exposure, through the rollers and toward the exterior of the camera for handling.

The Panasonic v. Kodak Patent Infringement Litigation

Land's ’392 patent was put to the test in a legal dispute against Kodak, who introduced a line of instant cameras in 1976. The litigation lasted from 1976 until 1991, included twelve asserted patents and culminated in a trial that lasted ninety-six days. According to the district court, the key to the invention of the ’392 patent was locating the "film-engaging member" at the rear of the camera to push the exposed film unit out of the camera. Prior designs that included front-mounted members such as rubber fingers, wheels that pinched the front surface of the film unit, or picks that engaged holes in the film to pull the film out all proved unreliable due to issues with speed of advancement, misalignment, and degradation of the film.  Land's “rear pick” design solved these and other problems and was seen as a non-obvious advance over prior designs. Ultimately, Panasonic emerged victorious. Seven patents, including the ’392 patent, were found to be infringed by Kodak and not invalid. Kodak was enjoined from selling its instant cameras and ordered to pay Polaroid almost $1 billion in damages.

DON'T Shake It

Anytime I hear the word "Polaroid," the lyric “shake it like a Polaroid picture” from Atlanta-based OutKast's brilliant hit “Hey Ya!” immediately pops into my head. And I remember when I had a Polaroid camera (I took one on a fifth grade field trip to Washington D.C.), I always shook the pictures thinking they would develop faster. So I was surprised to learn when putting this together, that Polaroid actually put out a press release advising customers that shaking its photos was not necessary (the image itself is never exposed to the air) and could actually damage the image by causing “blobs.” CNN's reporting on this was spot on, commenting that Polaroid's advice is great and all, but “'lay it on a flat surface like a Polaroid picture' doesn't sound nearly as cool."


intellectual property, ip litigation, ip patent, manufacturing, nixon_coby, insights