Land, Edwin Herbert

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Land, Edwin Herbert

(b. 7 May 1909 in Bridgeport, Connecticut; d. 1 March 1991 in Cambridge, Massachusetts), inventor of instant photography and the plastic sheet polarizer, founder of the Polaroid Corporation, scientific researcher on color vision, and confidential U.S. government adviser on spy planes and satellites from the 1950s onward.

Land was one of two children of Matha Goldfaden and Harry M. Land, a scrap-metal dealer and real-estate investor whose Jewish parents had fled persecution in tsarist Russia. Young Edwin and his family settled in Norwich, Connecticut, after World War I. His older sister, Helen, pronounced his name “Din,” creating Land’s lifelong nickname.

Land was fascinated by science, particularly optics, from childhood. He first encountered light polarizers at the age of thirteen at a Connecticut summer camp named Mooween. A major influence was the textbook Physical Optics, by Robert W. Wood of Johns Hopkins University (whom Land finally met in the 1930s). Land graduated from Norwich Academy in 1926, having already pushed far beyond what his high school physics instructor could teach him. He attended Harvard for only a semester, then moved to New York City to begin experiments in optics.

During more than two years in the city, studying intensely at the New York Public Library and experimenting in various Manhattan basements, Land succeeded in making a plastic sheet polarizer with billions of tiny crystals per square inch. This device was suitable for automobile headlights, visors, and windshields, to control nighttime glare and improve visibility. Until that time polarizers of light, used for nearly a century for basic scientific research, were made of expensive crystals like calcite or tourmaline. When Land returned to Harvard in 1929, after applying for the first of 535 U.S. patents, the physics department gave him his own laboratory in which to perfect his invention. On 10 November 1929 Land married Helen (Terre) Maislen of Hartford, Connecticut; the couple had two daughters.

After describing the sheet polarizer at a physics department seminar in 1932, Land again left Harvard, still without a degree, in order to go into the business of making and selling the polarizers he had invented. This enterprise evolved into the Polaroid Corporation in 1937. The company expanded rapidly during World War II, drawing on its pioneering in polarizers to develop and manufacture devices that would cut battlefield glare, improve the accuracy of gun-aiming at night, and maintain the night vision of pilots and sailors. As a diversion from this intense work, and to prepare for peacetime, he led the team that developed one-step, or instant, photography. This was first demonstrated publicly at a meeting of the Optical Society of America in 1947 and placed on the market in 1948. The invention of instant photography, at first delivering pictures in sixty seconds, emerged just as the major U.S. automakers were deciding against installing Land’s polarizer system in new cars. Polarizers would, however, become essential to such products as sunglasses, windows, and displays for digital watches and calculators.

Before he was forty years old, Land had launched two entire industries, sheet polarizers and instant photography. The first was destined for niche markets, the other for mass consumers. With the protection of hundreds of patents, Land led Polaroid’s development of successive generations of instant photography. The first photographs were in sepia. Black-and-white followed in 1950. Land and his team continually made the film more sensitive, so that by 1959, Polaroid marketed a variety that could take indoor sports pictures without a flash and deliver a print in fifteen seconds. Color went on the market in 1963, followed in 1972 by an entirely new system, called SX-70, in which the positive and negative were not peeled apart. Resembling a large playing card, SX-70 pictures allowed the customer to see the images “emerge” before their eyes. This basic technology was still in use thirty years later. The convenience of even the first instant photography led to sales of hundreds of thousands of cameras within a few years. The company grew so fast that it was the archetypal science-based industry of its day. Sales multiplied almost 200 times between 1950 and 1970. The reaction on Wall Street was to bid the price of Polaroid shares to ninety times earnings, a record at the time. But only a few years later, amid the struggle to introduce SX-70, Wall Street reversed its judgment and slashed the stock price 90 percent in about a year.

Land devoted little of his time to conventional corporate management, which he left to others, preferring to operate in his lab in an old brick building at Main and Osborn Streets in Cambridge, Massachusetts. During his more than sixty years in the laboratory, in which projects eventually grew to cost hundreds of millions of dollars, Land worked with small groups of collaborating researchers. He recruited and challenged them with such a torrent of new ideas that his coworkers often hoped that his attention would shift elsewhere. But they also found that when they got stuck, they could spend hours with him and go away with new ways to crack the nut.

To keep Polaroid from being swallowed up in a world of such giants as Eastman Kodak, Land not only emphasized patents but also imposed a culture of general secrecy. His concern with secrecy made him an ideal adviser to President Eisenhower and his successors on the subject of obtaining overhead photographs of the missiles and aircraft of the Soviet Union. Reconnaissance information was vital not only for finding targets or warning of dangers but also for obtaining information about the true strength of the Soviet military. This information, in turn, allowed the United States to rein in its own military development during the cold war, and also to monitor, in great detail, compliance with disarmament treaties. As with his instant-photography coworkers, Land often was called on to resolve seemingly impossible technical problems. His usual response was to give the engineers and scientists long lists of things to try. The effect was to restore optimism.

Although Land preferred to remain out of the public eye—he almost never appeared on television, for instance—he frequently spoke to the press and in smaller venues. Of medium height, with a shock of black hair parted on the right and penetrating dark eyes, the shy Land trained himself to be a dramatic public speaker and demonstrator before employees, shareholders, scientists, and officials. He was a fanatic experimentalist. He enjoyed every one of the hundreds or thousands of steps along a pathway—with a goal he spelled out in advance—to create “something well worth having.” In 1963 he told a reporter for Life magazine that “every creative act is a sudden cessation of stupidity.” But he was not merely an empiricist, trying one thing after another. In 1980 he declared, “We use bull’s-eye empiricism: we try everything, but we try the right thing first!”

Land knew decades of success, but the spectacular failure of an instant movie system Polaroid introduced in the late 1970s ended his leadership of the company he founded. When Land stepped down as chairman of Polaroid in 1980 under pressure from his board of directors, he defiantly maintained from the stage of Symphony Hall in Boston that the most valuable equity is ideas and shared competences that are built up in carrying out one innovation after another, in a world where one must innovate or die.

He received many honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1963) and the National Medals of both Science (1968) and Technology (1988); he was inducted in 1977 into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Land and his wife used much of their wealth in large and small philanthropies, including many millions for three projects in Cambridge: a science building at Harvard, the House of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Rowland Institute for Science on the Charles River. With gifts to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he pushed to increase the amount of time college students spent doing experiments, starting in their freshman year. Land died at the age of eighty-one. He is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.

More than a half century after his invention of the plastic sheet polarizer, Edwin Land remained a symbol of restless innovation. When he started out as a youth in the 1920s, it was often said that the frontier was closed. But Land defied the big companies and the notion that the heroic inventor had disappeared. Almost alone, he lived the innovator’s high-wire life. He was determined to use science for unexpected, significant new things that thousands or millions would use, thereby launching viable businesses. Thanks to Land’s unquenchable energy, millions of people all over the world had the fun of looking at photographs they had just taken, of people and places and events they were enjoying. Skilled in convincing huge numbers of people that innovation could be useful and pleasant, he was ready to walk through the minefields of finance, patents, and public relations, knowing that once an invention is born, the next must already be underway.

For an overview of Land’s published work, see Mary McCann, ed., Edwin H. Land’s Essays, 2 vols. (1993), especially “Polaroid and the Headlight Problem,” which was his first published article; “Basic Research in the Small Company,” dating from 1946; “A New One-Step Photographic Process,” a 1947 article that describes the development of instant photography; and “The Retinex Theory of Color Vision,” which spells out his evolving ideas on this subject. A full biography is Victor K. McElheny, Insisting on the Impossible: The Life of Edwin Land, Inventor of Instant Photography (1998). Accounts of Land’s career also appear in Francis Bello, “The Magic That Made Polaroid,” Fortune (Apr. 1959); Philip Siekman, “Kodak and Polaroid: An End to Peaceful Co-existence,” Fortune (Nov. 1970); and Sean Callahan, “If You Are Able To State a Problem, It Can Be Solved,” Life (27 Oct. 1972). An obituary is in the New York Times (2 Mar. 1991).

Victor K. McElheny

Edwin Herbert Land

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Edwin Herbert Land

The American physicist, inventor, and manufacturer Edwin Herbert Land (1909-1991) was the first to develop successfully a synthetic light-polarizing material and to develop a camera for one-step photography.

Edwin Land was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1909. After attending preparatory school he entered Harvard University. He soon became involved in studying polarized light and began experiments to develop a way of creating the effect artificially. In normal light, wave vibrations take place in all directions; in polarized light, these vibrations are controlled and permitted to travel only in certain directions.

In 1828 a prism had been invented that was used to polarize light for optical instruments. The great expense of the prism, however, limited its use, and a search was begun for a cheaper means of creating the same effect; most attempts had concentrated on trying to grow very large crystals in the laboratory. Land, deciding to leave college to pursue his work at a laboratory in New York City, approached the problem by using many small crystals tightly packed together to produce the effect of one large crystal. His technique was to extrude plastic containing the artificial crystals through small holes, thus ensuring that the crystals would all be lying in the proper direction.

Early Work Yields Success

For much of his early career, Land worked alone. While working in New York, however, he met Helen Maislen, a graduate of Smith College who became his assistant and, in 1929, his wife. In that year, he returned to Harvard, where the university provided him with laboratory space for his research. Land discussed his work with George W. Wheel-wright III, a physics instructor at Harvard who had been one of his teachers. In 1932 Wheelwright left teaching to work with Land, and together the two men opened a consulting physics laboratory and continued to perfect their polarizer. In 1937 Land organized the Polaroid Corporation, which is today the leading firm in the field.

Land's inventive ability was matched by a shrewd business sense. Part of his success was due to the fact that he licensed his method for various applications: to the American Optical Company for sunglasses, to the Eastman Kodak Company for camera filters, and to Bausch and Lomb Company for optical instruments.

During World War II, Land worked on optics and missiles for the National Defense Research Committee. In 1847 he invented the Polaroid Land camera, which made possible one-step photography. In 1948 he received the coveted Holley Medal of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. In that same year, he developed a new optical system that enabled scientists at the Sloan-Kettering Institute to observe living human cells in their natural color. During the 1950s, Land served as head of a presidential committee studying ways to prevent future sneak attacks on the United States like the one that occurred at Pearl Harbor. Land's Polaroid Corporation continued research in optics generally and in color vision, plastics, and other fields.

A Dream Realized

Crowning achievements of Land's career came in 1963, when he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 1967, when he received the National Medal of Science, both presented by President Lyndon Johnson. In 1972, Land was able to see a long-held dream of his become a reality when he introduced the SX-70 instant color camera to the world. Land was granted 533 patents for his inventions, and in 1977, the U.S. Patent Office inducted him into the Inventor's Hall of Fame. In August of 1982, Land retired. On March 1, 1991, he died of undisclosed causes at the age of 81. In an age increasingly characterized by the displacement of individual inventors by large industrial research laboratories, Land's career indicates that individuals can still make contributions to technological progress.

Further Reading

Books on Land or on his career include Mark Olshaker, The Instant Image (1978), Peter C. Wensberg, Land's Polaroid (1987), and Scott McPartland, Edwin Land "Masters of Invention Set" (1993). □

Edwin Herbert Land

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Edwin Herbert Land


American inventor with over 500 optical and plastics patents who was the driving force behind the Polaroid Corporation. Land developed the polarizer Polaroid-J used in sunglasses and optical instruments. During World War II he developed the invaluable reconnaissance tool "vectography"—a three-dimensional photographic system. In 1947 he invented the first instant-developing film and the Polaroid-Land Camera, which produced prints in 60 seconds. Land also developed an optical system for observing living human cells in their natural colors.