Robert Armstrong Smith
He did much of his creative work from a basement laboratory in his house on Beveridge Road. Early in his career he obtained patents for better machinery couplings and bushings for his business known as Smith & Serrell. He also held patents on a better snow shovel and a coin holder.
But the most interesting stories come from his work in polarized light. He was an associate of Lewis Warrington Chubb of Westinghouse. They were working on polarizing the lights from headlamps in a car. Polarization, as you probably know from figuring out how your sunglasses work, is the process of taking light waves which are in a random pattern and changing them into a more concentrated stream.
Patent for light polarizer
Before the work of Chubb and Smith and of Edwin Land, headlights were dangerous because they were not polarized. Chubb and Smith were working on mechanical means of polarizing light which polarized it at is source. Edwin Land had dropped out of Harvard and was working on a chemical solution that polarized the light using a film on a windshield, or on the headlight lens. They were engaged in a patent battle that resulted ultimately in Chubb and Smith selling their patents to Polaroid Corporation for stock in that company and a job for Chubb.
In 1933, in the midst of the patent negotiations, Land came to Mahwah and they did some testing. Here, thanks to Audrey Artusio, the current owner of the Smith house, Margaret Smith Pryde (1910-2008), Robert’s daughter, Mary Ellen Pryde Abrams, and Tara Van Brederode, Robert’s granddaughters, is a description of that test by Robert’s daughter Molly:
Dr. Edwin Land …..came to Mahwah in 1933 to witness a test run. Our cars were equipped with polarized headlights and windshields.
I was to be the guinea pig. It was a dark, rainy night. Dad gave me instructions. “I don’t want to know where you’re standing,” he said. “That yellow slicker is too light. Go borrow your mother’s black raincoat.”
I did as he said and then stationed myself on the road. Dad and Lew [Lewis Chubb] got in the car at one end of the road and Dr. Land rode with Mother in the second car which began at the other end of the road. Both drivers were supposed to see me. I was scared.
Dad had said, “Don’t move, no matter what. I’ll honk the horn when I see you.”
I was beginning to panic. “But what if you don’t see me?
He calmly replied, “I will.”
I stood, mesmerized, as the headlights of the approaching cars moved closer. I felt rooted to the ground. I muttered to myself, “Please dear God let them see me in time.” My fists were clenched in the pockets of the raincoat. I heard the swish of tires on the wet road as the cars came closer and I closed my eyes.
No sound was ever sweeter than the “beep, beep” of the Essex horn and the answering beep of the Hupmobile.
Smith did not live to see Edwin Land’s most famous use of Polaroid light, the Polaroid Camera.