Polaroid’s SX-70, the Greatest Gadget of All Time, Is 41

A remarkable American invention celebrates its birthday today.

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Harry McCracken

My very own folding, leather-clad SX-70, which I found in an antique shop in 2011

Forty-one years ago today, Polaroid co-founder Edwin Land stood before an audience inside a warehouse in Needham, Massachusetts and announced the SX-70. It was the first instant camera which, with one press of a button, delivered a photo that developed in daylight.

Polaroid had been making instant cameras for almost a quarter-century by then, but they were far bulkier and clunkier than the SX-70 and involved a lot of work; everything about the new camera was, indeed, new. Land said that it contained 20,000 technical breakthroughs; I’m respectfully skeptical of that figure, but the camera and its film still contained an astonishing number of mechanical, optical and chemical innovations.

Just as astonishing, they were all invented by Polaroid engineers, and the company manufactured almost every component of the SX-70 system itself at its Boston-area factories. (The battery inside the film pack was initially outsourced, but when Ray-O-Vac messed it up, Polaroid built its own battery plant.) It’s as if Apple hadn’t just designed the iPad’s case and written its software, but also invented its LCD display and wireless broadband networking.

[image] TIME SX-70 cover

The SX-70 was huge news — it made the covers of both TIME and LIFE — but was not an instant hit. Actually, it suffered nagging production problems which resulted in it only reaching the market in a limited fashion in 1972, in a pilot program in Florida; it wasn’t widely available until the fall of 1973. And then its $180 price — more than $900 in current dollars — kept it from being a blockbuster, saleswise. But Polaroid later used the basics of the SX-70 technology in cheaper cameras such as the OneStep, one of the most popular gizmos ever.

Two years ago, I bought a vintage SX-70 at a consignment shop and became so entranced by it that I wrote 14,000 words about the camera, Polaroid and Land. In that story, I said that the SX-70 was the greatest gadget ever. After mulling it over, I see no reason to modify that assessment.

And for a product that was supposedly rendered obsolete years ago by digital photography, the SX-70 is doing remarkably well. Polaroid stopped making SX-70 film in 2006 (and film of any sort in 2008), but the mad geniuses behind the Impossible Project, who bought a Polaroid factory, are making film that just keeps getting better. If you get your hands on an SX-70 and shoot a pack of Impossible film, it’s not hard to understand why the world found this camera so dazzling back in 1972.