Laboratory Mistakes 5/10/22

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

Photography today is rather different from it used to be. I ended up where I didn’t expect to be this past week, but I had my camera with me. I rattled off dozens of photos (until my camera battery died) without thinking twice. When I was growing up, however, people would carefully consider every photo, and take their time in the hopes of not wasting money. And that’s the key.

See, today, once you’ve spent money on the initial equipment, all pictures thereafter are free. We don’t have to spend money on buying film, or developing it, and we didn’t have to wait for the film to be shipped off to a lab to be developed. Yes, I am old enough to remember when film had to be shipped off for development.

It was a great advancement when a lab-in-a-machine was made. These were like copy machines, but they developed film. Usually it took about an hour, and “film developed in an hour” became a thing. The next big development, then, became self-processing film. Which leads us to this interesting story.

See, there were two large laboratories (Polaroid and Kodak) racing to get to the market with this development. You still had to buy the film, but the photo would spit out of the camera, and in about five minutes, the picture would develop without taking it to a developing place. Both hit the market at about the same time, resulting in a patent lawsuit. Which company developed it first?

This was a multi-million-dollar lawsuit. The company that wins stood to make a lot of money. That you can still find Polaroid self-developing cameras tells you immediately which company won, but the story of why is fascinating.

See, in the court proceedings, and they subpoenaed everything they could from both laboratories developing the film. Including, laboratory notebooks. When I taught chemistry lab, the one thing I routinely failed to impress upon my students is the difference between “observations” and “recollections”. I worked very hard to get students to write down observations in the laboratory during the experiment as they observed them. To go home and write things you saw later were recollections, not observations.

As it turns out, this is a lesson the Kodak chemist never learned either. He had a habit (it eventually came to light) of working in the lab, and then writing in this laboratory notebook at the end of the week with everything that had happened. In so doing, he would put the dates and entries in the notebook as if he wrote them down on that very day. And, yes, this is lying. It’s fabrication.

No big deal, right? As it turns out, one of his notebook entries was on Labor Day. Chemists could, indeed, work on holidays, but unlike other days, they were required to sign in on holidays. They attorneys looked at the sign-in logs, and you guessed it, no signature from the chemist. He had been caught in the lie, minor at best, but the Polaroid attorneys argued, successfully, that since this entry was fabricated, there is no way of knowing what else he had lied about. Kodak’s case was thrown out, Polaroid won the highly lucrative patent, and the chemist was never heard from again.

Well, I can’t honestly say he was never heard from again, but I’m sure that he was no longer at Kodak. Or Polaroid.

It’s amazing how quickly one can tarnish their own reputation. Pons and Fleishmann, two highly reputable electrochemists, bypassed the normal publication review process and took what they believed to be their discovery of cold fusion directly to the press. They learned the hard way that they hadn’t considered all of the potential background sources of radiation (which they argued as proof of fusion), and when their “discovery” had been rejected by science, they, too, disappeared. One disappeared completely, and the other no longer works as a chemist.

It’s not just laboratory sciences. I’ve written before about the importance of trust in a relationship, but it goes beyond significant others. I had a local man doing lawn work for me, but he lied, and damaged my property without telling me that he had done so. How can I trust him again? He still stops by periodically to see if I have any work he can do for me, but the answer is I will not be able to trust him again. He has damaged his reputation with me, and I can’t trust him not to do so again. Maybe there will be a silver lining if he learns to be honest, but it’s already too late for me. Sometimes reputations cannot be repaired, so we must be careful to protect our reputation while we can.

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