A Second With Bonanos

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INSTANT: The Story of Polaroid is a smart, concise and fiercely entertaining book that brings the Polaroid story arch into a contemporary context. In particular I find it interesting how big business, entrepreneurialism and the creative impulse to invent uniquely came together with this company. I sat down with it’s author, Christopher Bonanos, who pleasantly indulged my queries.

Part One of your interview is here. Part Two is below.

Was Polaroid Kodak’s first big competitor?

In the late 40’s when Polaroid came around with photography for the first time, they were buying the negative layer of the film from Kodak. Kodak treated them as less of a competitor and more of a subsidiary. They actually sent out a telegram to all their sales reps saying so—I think that the exact worlds were “What is good for photography is good for Kodak.”

Their feeling was that people would start out with this gimmicky thing and then would migrate over to conventional film, because Polaroid wouldn’t do everything people wanted. That was Kodak’s thinking for almost 20 years.

In the late 60’s Kodak started to wake up to the fact that Polaroid was gaining market share and that this start-up company making what they’d thought of as a little toy was suddenly significant.

The lawsuit over Kodak’s instant camera took how long?

Fourteen years. A long time! In the end Polaroid got slightly under a billion dollars. Which was the record for a patent-infringement settlement until last summer’s Apple vs. Samsung case.

Did Land ever mentor people like him or did he just mentor engineers? If there was going to be a successor they needed to be creative and daring, as well as technically brilliant.

There was one man named Stan Bloom who might have made the difference. In the 1970’s he was the top chemist at Polaroid. He had worked out a lot of bugs in the SX-70 film, including the opacifier, which was possibly the knottiest problem. A lot of people said that he was brilliant, maybe even as brilliant as Land. It was clear to some people within Polaroid that he was groomed to be the next guy.

In 1978 they brought him to the Photokina show in Cologne. He was being eased into the marketing side of the business, so in one sense this was his coming out as an executive. But he was was conflicted about the trip; he was an observant Jew who didn’t want to go to Germany. He grudgingly agreed to stay for one overnight, and on that night he died.

He died in Germany? In his sleep? That’s crazy!

I know! He was 46 years old.

Instant author Christopher Bonanos

Instant author Christopher Bonanos

An early test Polaroid of Edwin Land.

An early test Polaroid of Edwin Land.

I’m enjoying chatting with you about the Polaroid story, but is there an obvious question that I am not asking you?

You’ve gone off in a fresh direction, which I appreciate. I’ve talked endlessly about the Apple connection.

The reason I asked you about the entrepreneur question, what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur, specifically a scientific one, is because so many people who attempt it don’t get anywhere. There is something about Land that he was successful, like Steve Jobs. It sounds like Land was quirky, maybe not in the way Jobs was.

I think that there was somebody who worked there who recently posted a comment like, “they were both geniuses, Land was the kinder genius.” And that seems to be true. People say nice things about Steve Jobs even as they describe him as an irrational bastard.

One thing that I’ve heard about Land is that if you came to him on a Monday morning after a project was due and said “I went at it all weekend and I couldn’t get this.” Land would say, “Okay, let’s stop here and work through this. What stopped you, and what can we do about it?”

Alternatively, Jobs would have probably thrown you out of his office. If you were coming at the project hard, the way you ought to have been, Land would not belittle you. That is a talent not every executive has.

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