In December 1943, Edwin Land took his family on vacation. Leaving his home in Cambridge, Mass., the inventor took his wife and 3-year-old daughter to New Mexico for a few days.
While walking through the snow, Land had an idea.
A New York Times obituary from 1991 quotes him as saying, “I recall a sunny day in Santa Fe when my little daughter asked why she could not see at once the picture I had just taken of her. As I walked around the charming town, I undertook the task of solving the puzzle she had set me.”
Soon after, Land invented the Polaroid camera.
Massive success followed. Land, a Harvard University dropout and mostly self-taught physicist, went on to receive 533 patents for his inventions and became phenomenally wealthy.
In February of this year, the Polaroid Corporation announced it was ceasing production of its most famous product, relegating the instant camera to the domain of hobbyists, collectors and eBay merchants.
The instant camera’s limelight has faded like a Polaroid photo left in the sun for too long, but Land’s camera inspired countless amateurs and pros, so much so that instant camera enthusiasts set up a save-the-Polaroid Web site.
Six decades since Land’s eureka moment, Santa Fe is still inspiring inventors.
Ever heard of Jerome Romero’s FunTopz bottle openers or Michael Ogden’s wastewater treatment system or Ed Sceery’s wounded-animal whistle? You may soon. These Santa Fe inventors’ recent creations represent a small portion of the 832 patents awarded to New Mexico inventors (who are predominantly male) over the last couple of years. All these inventors have dreams of success—even if their contraptions never achieve Land’s level of notoriety.
Patents are the bane or blessing of innovation, depending on whom you ask. Ben Mattes, creator of filters used in saltwater-powered clean energy plants, says he decided against filing for a patent because “they allow you to sue other people for infringement.” His invention, which involves water filtration for power plants, remains a trade secret, meaning anyone who figures out his technology is able to use it. (Mattes says he’s confident no one will ever figure out the workings of his invention.)
According to federal law, a patent is good for 20 years, after which anyone can make knockoffs of an inventor’s product. Visit the US Patent Office’s Web site and you will see drawings and explanations of thousands of patented inventions. Nationally, New Mexico ranks near the bottom of the patent hierarchy, both on a per capita basis and in terms of sheer numbers.
New Mexico, according to patent attorney Sam Freund, has not done as much to attract businesses that focus on invention and intellectual property as other states.
Santa Fe inventors are not to be deterred, though. Talk to one for long enough and you may well start believing in their gadgets, too. At the very least, you’ll likely come away wondering: Why didn’t I think of that?