In an era when selfies are ubiquitous and everyone is taking pictures on all manner of mobile devices and posting them instantaneously for the world to see, it might be difficult for readers of a certain age to identify with the wonder that was the Polaroid.
But it wasn’t so long ago that photos were developed on film, requiring a trip to the drug store and a matter of days before a batch of prints revealed what images the photographer captured. For Edwin Land, that wait was excruciatingly too long. One imagines that he would have loved digital cameras, smart phones, other mobile devices, and all the various apps that today function as photographers’ tools (even if, as it happened, the company he launched failed to keep up with changing technology). Alas, that technology would be years in the future, and so Land instead had to focus on the science and technology of his day and age in order to bring one-step photography to life.
The Polaroid camera, which to many today is a relic of anachronistic kitsch, was at the time of its invention a true wonder, an awe-inspiring invention that rocked the worlds of science, technology, photography, and business. Polaroid and Edwin Land were in the twentieth century what Apple and Steve Jobs became in the twenty-first.
Ronald Fierstein relates the amazing and captivating story of Land and Polaroid in A Triumph of Genius, which is a work of near genius in its own right. Tightly written and thoroughly researched, this wide-ranging book is a true page-turner, full of tension and emotion.
Fierstein, who as a young lawyer with the law firm of Fish & Neave worked on the “epic patent battle” between Polaroid and Eastman Kodak, provides keen insight into both companies, the people behind them, the inventions that catapulted them to success and fame, and the protracted legal fight that pitted the two companies—once collaborators—against each other.
A Triumph of Genius looks at Land’s tireless inventive spirit, which drove him to secure 535 patents during the course of his life, second at the time only to Thomas Edison and Elihu Thomson. It looks at the evolution of photography, an evolution in which Land, a brilliant, reclusive man, was instrumental. It looks at the roles science and technology played in that evolution. It also looks at the business of Polaroid and of Eastman Kodak, both of which were at the forefront of the science, technology, and business of photography. And, then, it looks at the connection between Polaroid and Kodak and the patent lawsuit that destroyed their relationship.
Much is at play in this riveting story, and Fierstein handles it all deftly and with panache. A skilled writer, he lays the foundation with a look at Land’s early life and career. He carefully explains in understandable terms the science and technology behind Land’s inventions and related patents. He provides a balanced view of the relationship between Polaroid and Kodak. And he clearly outlines the legal issues that resulted in a landmark patent case that still resonates today.
As an insider on Polaroid’s legal team during the battle that ultimately lasted well more than a decade (Polaroid first filed suit against Kodak in 1976; Kodak finally settled, for $925 million, in 1991), Fierstein could easily have focused solely on that company’s experience. Instead, A Triumph of Genius provides a balanced view, sharing insight and information from both sides of the legal battle. Fierstein could easily have portrayed Land as an amicable genius who, in trying to protect his intellectual property, was forced to go after big, bad Kodak. Instead, he shows Land not only as a genius but as someone who could be abrasive, thoughtless, and relentlessly determined. Although told mostly from Polaroid’s point of view, it is clear that Fierstein has done much to be as balanced and objective as possible. As a result, the material feels even-handed, even while engendering sympathy for Polaroid, which was clearly the underdog in this David-and-Goliath story.
Although a truly remarkable book, it is not without a few minor flaws. Some of the descriptions of the science and technology behind the various inventions and patents at issue can feel like dense minutiae and are skimmable without losing much meat. Too, some of the author’s attempts to add contemporary context to the story can feel a little clunky, as when he writes, “America was a troubled and distracted country in early 1971. Richard Nixon was starting the third year of his first term as president and continued to pursue the war in Vietnam rigorously. Protest grew …” and continues on for a lengthy paragraph before concluding with “It was in this environment that Edwin Land continued to work toward realizing his almost thirty-year quest to provide the world with the ultimate instant photography system.”
However, these are but minor quibbles in such an engaging story, especially for one with such a wide scope. A Triumph of Genius spans nearly a century and covers myriad topics. Readers with an interest in business, history, law, photography, science, or technology will find much of interest in these pages. This nuanced, absorbing book reveals a story with lasting implications and enduring lessons. It is as multifaceted as Edwin Land, the reclusive genius, was himself.
February 2015, Ankerwycke/ABA Publishing
$35, hardcover, 640 pages
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen
(it should be noted that the reviewer once worked at ABA Publishing, although she does not know the author)