After Steve Jobs died, a number of observers, led by Christopher Bonanos, noted that, far from merely sitting along the continuum of American inventors where Edison and Ford are also found, Jobs’s beliefs and practices were almost a recapitulation of those of Edwin Land, founder of Polaroid. Commenters ran with the comparison (Carl Johnson, John Byrne, 37 Signals).

I remembered that, in 1996, I wrote an article for the Globe and Mail about the design history of the Polaroid SX‑70. I relied heavily on Peter C. Wensberg’s 1987 book Land’s Polaroid.

My copy is in a box somewhere, so I ordered the library’s sole copy. I looked through this memoir of Wensberg’s time with the company for parallels between Land and Jobs. After a while I simply had to put the book down, because the parallels were nearly exact and showed no signs of stopping. Here are some notable examples, with approximate page numbers and the eras covered.

  • Decide on then-impossible technical constraints. The result must always benefit the user and appear simple and elegant. Bring an army of workers to bear on inventing even tiny components no one ever sees. Ruthlessly edit subpar work.

    He had already decided an important issue: There would be no “black box.” The self-developing camera must be self-contained. It should not require a separate development chamber into which the exposed film was fed. The camera would include its own development chamber, and Land thought he knew how to accomplish this….

    Land described to McCune his idea for an envelope-like container, which would hold the developer solution. He called it a pod…. The idea struck Bill with its simplicity and its elegance. […]

    [A] lab technician, Fred Binda, began to cut and fold and seal a series of pods, in various sizes and shapes, made of every possible material Land could conjure up. In the research shop, Maxfield Parrish, son of the famous artist whose confectionery landscapes had enjoyed such popularity in the ’20s, constructed bars, jaws, rollers, and other devices to open the pod. A bewildering array of forces and factors came to bear on the spread system, as it was called….

    Land knew that the spread system was the key to the success of a self-developing camera. If developer did not coat the entirety surface of the negative, the image would be flawed. He focus[s]ed the energies of all the members of the still-tiny, still-secret SX‑70 team on the problem… The alchemist darted in and out to peer over their shoulders, to poke, to fiddle to adjust, to correct. He smiled, joked, encouraged, sometimes frowned, his brow black with frustration. Then he bolted.

    (Pp. 87–88, circa 1944.)

  • Devise a new kind of product-introduction spectacle that customers and staff look forward to as if it were Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall. Invent a new look for the stagecraft. Deliver the presentation with supernatural calm and presence.

    Build entire factories from scratch, inventing equipment where necessary even if that task is as much of a struggle as inventing the actual product. Isolate scientists and developers into modules working in ignorance of other modules.

    • Land invented a totally different kind of annual meeting. Like many of his best inventions, it served several purposes; was complex, elegant, tastefully packaged; required enormous preparation; and dealt with several audiences on different levels simultaneously. Within the company, Land used the annual meeting to push to completion, or near-completion, the development project at hand….

      The SX‑70 project was in its second year of intense activity, although research on the film structure had begin in the mid-’60s. Land had set extraordinarily difficult goals for the project. The camera was to be small, but just how small was still the subject of emotional debate. It was indeed to be a folding single-lens reflex, and animal that not only did not yet exist in photography but had never been imagined. The integral film structure would allow development of the colo[u]r image to take place, then cease at the appropriate moment, entirely within the film unit itself. The chemical processes would take place in the light, not in a dark chamber. The camera was to include revolutionary optics and a complete set of electronic controls, some of which had not yet been invented.

      Three Polaroid factories were being built simultaneously…. Each required process machinery that was to be conceived, built, and installed by Polaroid engineers. Many of the most important manufacturing issues had not been solved, since the specifications of the camera and film were still changing. […]

      Land was virtually the only person in the company who knew in detail all the difficulties that had to be surmounted. The rest of us could only guess. “Do not undertake a program unless the goal is manifestly important and its achievement is nearly impossible,” Land has said 30 years earlier. This sort of statement could be maddening to pragmatic men and women. […]

      When it became known within the SX‑70 project teams that the unformed, recalcitrant, pitiful embryo that they were nurturing might be birthed onstage before an audience of shareholders and the national press, panic, anger, and despair spread like an epidemic. It wasn’t fair. It was much too early. The goals were “nearly impossible.” That phrase had echoed around the company since [the] SX‑70’s inception…. The concerns were the same: Exposure, embarrassment, lack of adequate preparation, questions to which there were no answers. Did Land really mean it? Would be really do it? Meanwhile, six months’ work was accomplished in six weeks.

      Rehearsals for the meeting began a month before the date…. Contrary to current corporate practice, Polaroid encouraged people to attend – not only shareholders, but their friends and families as well. Far from limiting access, the company provided maps, road signs, parking areas, and shuttle buses to make attendance as easy as possible.

      But two factors above all served to swell the size of the audience: The expectation of seeing a new product and Land’s presence on the stage. If the SX‑70 development team formed the first audience, the second was the thousands who would occupy the folding wooden chairs, a congregation of the converted. They would come prepared to be dazzled by Land’s magic. Most of them owned a Polaroid camera…. The stockholders felt they had been invited by Dr. Edwin H. Land himself, the source of all that was exciting and profitable about owning Polaroid stock. […]

      Playing to this responsive audience was more than emotionally gratifying. Land had enough feel to understand the nuances of audience reaction to a presentation. His shareholders taught him how the world would react to a new product. The meetings were themselves experiments, products often exposed to an audience in piecemeal fashion. […]

      The sound system, the elaborate stage lighting, most of the theatrical mechanics had been rehearsed…. When he paused to talk to one of the design engineers on the camera team, he reached into his right coat pocket. Every eye followed the motion of his hand. He pulled out… something, then replaced it quickly.

      In the uncertain light it was hard to see clearly what it was. It was shiny, about the size of a cigar case. Land occasionally smoked cigars. Was it the camera? Many of this quite senior group had not seen it yet. The issue of its size had caused great pain. That which was nearly impossible became unbearably difficult as the size of the package was reduced. Battles were fought over a millimetre[re] of dimension…. Word on the camera team, and the film team as well, since they must live or die by the same dimensions, was that the most important person on the SX‑70 project was Land’s tailor.

      (Pp. 169–, 1971.)

    • [Land] wrestled with the problem of demonstrating a camera whose pictures had an image area 3¼″ square…. The first [invention] was an octagonal stage. Six octagons would be situated behind the audience area…. Each octagon would be a picture-taking cent[re]…. The second invention was a picture rail, slotted to hold the pictures securely by their lower margin, with a pin inserted through each empty pod so that they could not be removed…. Land described these inventions with the same genial lack of modesty that one might use to announce a cure for cancer….

      On the day of the 1972 [annual shareholders’] meeting, Land, surrounded by people in various stages of panic, anxiety, uncertainly, and despair, radiated joy and confidence…. Land mounted the stairs of an empty octagon, brightly lit in the cent[re] of an otherwise dark hall. He seated himself in a simple chair, picked up his pipe from the little Eames table purloined, as in the past, from my office, charged his pipe, lit it, and said, in a quite voice that was superbly audible to the farthest corners of the room, “Photography will never be the same after today.” The audience, a few less than 4,000, heard and believed. I believed. I had staged the show and still I believed. […]

      (Pp. 178–, 1972.)

  • Don’t just invent but reinvent. Create new products on regular cycles knowing that customers will happily upgrade. The cost will include cannibalizing sales from, or simply invalidating, your old products, but by then you’ve trained your customers they are not just witnessing but participating in the evolution of consumer technology.

    Land was correct to ignore conventional wisdom: He was teaching the American public, and by extension a world market, that the Polaroid camera was not a lifetime acquisition but an evolving idea, an ongoing adventure, an exploration of technology…. Polaroid’s film-usage curve was even more heavily skewed to the initial year of ownership than that of conventional cameras. Thus, if we continued to change camera designs every three to four years…, we could hope to rekindle the interest of an owner whose camera had departed in a yard sale or was gathering dust on a closet shelf. […]

    The innovations of the SX‑70 were truly revolutionary…. The American public, with its appetite for new technology, swallowed SX‑70 with a hiccup of appreciation and wondered what might come next. Land himself had taught them that there would always be another idea, another invention, another feature, if only a beep or a boop.

    [The SX‑70], which most of us at is début devoutly believed to be an ultimate, met with instant and enthusiastic acceptance, but was perceived as another step in a continuum. Pop technology marched on. What would come next? Video games, little computers, mood rings, home video? Bring it on. And keep it coming.

    Nevertheless, many of us in that warehouse room felt a small jolt at the back of the spine, a lump in the throat; saw it as a moment we would remember beyond most other moments. I knew that I had been changed by SX‑70, and photography was far from the most important thing in my life.

    (Pp. 178–, 1972.)

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2011.11.07 16:10. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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