In honor of his birthday this month, our Learning from InvENtors subject is Edwin Land – the inventor responsible for conceiving and perfecting instant photography.
He invented the Polaroid camera and film, and was the co-founder of the Polaroid Corporation.
Edwin Herbert Land was born on May 7, 1909, in Bridgeport, Conn. As a boy, Land was fascinated by light. In particular, he was drawn to the natural phenomenon of light polarization.
Polarization refers to a physical property of light waves. As the waves move forward, they vibrate vertically, horizontally, and at all angles in between. A polarizer acts like a slatted screen, with long, thin, parallel openings. These invisible slats stop all angles of light except those parallel to the openings. By doing so, polarizers provide the ability to select light waves with particular orientations.
Around age 13, Land was searching for a product that would improve vehicle safety during nighttime driving: If polarizers could be placed in headlights and windshields, then they could be used to prevent the disturbing glare from oncoming vehicles’ headlights. Moreover, because glare would be eliminated, headlights could be made brighter, thereby increasing the safety of nighttime driving.
In 1926, Land enrolled at Harvard University to study physics, but his desire to conduct research caused him to leave after only a few months in search of more practical opportunities. He moved to New York City, where he studied physical optics independently at the New York Public Library and conducted experiments secretly at Columbia University. There, he worked to develop a synthetic polarizer.
He created fine polarizing crystals, suspended them in liquid lacquer, and aligned them using an electromagnet. He then pulled a sheet of celluloid (a thin, clear plastic) through this solution to make a continuous sheet of crystals. As the lacquer dried, the crystals retained their orientation, and the result was a polarizing sheet that was thin, transparent, and pliable.
In 1929, Land applied for his first patent, a method for producing his polarizing sheets. He returned to Harvard in the same year but left again before completing his undergraduate degree to focus on his emerging business. By 1930, Land had identified a more promising way to manufacture polarizing sheets: Instead of using electromagnets, he could apply the tiny crystals to a plastic sheet and, by stretching it, achieve parallel alignment of the crystals. Although it took several years to perfect, this method resulted in the commercial production of polarized sheets, otherwise known as Polaroid J sheets, a groundbreaking advance in polarizing light technology.
In 1932, Land and George W. Wheelwright, III (1903–2001), a Harvard colleague, formed Land-Wheelwright Laboratories in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to manufacture polarizers. The company’s inexpensive polarizers were used in photographic filters, glare-free sunglasses, and stereoscopic products that gave the illusion of three-dimensional (3D) images. 3D movies were created by applying polarizers to projectors and viewing glasses.
The company also invented a new product called a vectograph that combined two still images taken from slightly different positions and printed as oppositely-polarized images; using polarized glasses, viewers saw a 3-D image of the subject.
In 1937, Land-Wheelwright became a public company named Polaroid Corporation after the trade name for the firm’s polarizing films. While Land’s dream of anti-glare vehicle systems was never implemented by automakers, the company was making a good business on polarizing films.
Land’s Military Efforts
Polaroid delivered anti-glare goggles for soldiers and pilots, as well as gun sights, viewfinders, cameras, and numerous other optical devices with polarizing lenses. The vectograph, previously a novelty, became a tool for the U.S. military to visualize geographic features of battlegrounds and aerial maps in three dimensions.
Polaroid earned a reputation among the many companies working toward national goals for delivering optical technologies in short time frames.
As the war drew to a close and the company neared the end of its military service, Land faced a new challenge: What would Polaroid do after the war? Now leading a much larger company with more employees and greater research expertise than a few years earlier, Land was determined to put his company and its people to work during peacetime.
Inspired by a request from his daughter…
Ah the immediate gratification needs of children…little did Land know in 1943, in Santa Fe, when his 3-year-old daughter why the camera that they used couldn’t produce a photo immediately, she was on to something. He mulled the question over and was inspired to invent a device.
In conventional photography, a photographer took a series of photographs on a roll of film and returned it to a laboratory later for development. There, a technician would work inside a darkroom, a specialized laboratory that contained the materials—chemical baths to start and stop the development, washing and drying equipment, and other supplies—needed to develop film and produce photographic prints. The entire process took several minutes in the laboratory and usually several days from the time a photographer dropped off the film until a print was ready for retrieval.
Land’s system required a new kind of camera and film, a system that would compress all of the components of a conventional darkroom into a single film unit, to be processed in under a minute after being ejected from the camera. If successful, the system would allow users to evaluate and share images moments after they had been taken, a transformational change from traditional photography.
From 1943 through 1946, the instant camera was kept secret at Polaroid’s laboratories as multiple challenges were resolved. The entire process required suitable color intensity and sharpness. The film unit had to be shelf-stable from the time it left the factory to when consumers clicked their camera buttons, and it had to work at a wide variety of temperatures, from desert heat to winter cold. Finally, after development, the unit had to stop all the reactions to create long-lasting photographs. Each problem was solved with precise control of the film’s chemistry.
In 1947, Land publicly demonstrated an instant camera, called the Polaroid Land Camera, with film.
Newspapers covering the event called the invention “revolutionary.” The following year was dominated by resolving challenges the company faced in bringing the system from the laboratory to commercial-scale manufacturing.
The first Polaroid camera, called the Model 95, and its associated film went on sale in 1948 at a department store in Boston. The cameras sold out in minutes. The Model 95 produced only sepia-toned images, and after the film emerged from the camera, photographers had to wait exactly 60 seconds before peeling off the negative backing of the image. Although it required precise operation by photographers and did not exceed the quality of traditional films, customers loved the system’s promise of nearly instant results.
Photographic sales of the Land Model 95 camera exceed $5 million in the first year.
The One-Step Polaroid
The crowning chapter of the Polaroid system was the development of the SX-70 camera and film. The project represented ultimate simplicity and reward for photographers—all they had to do was press the camera button and watch as the image developed before their eyes.
Until this point, Polaroid films required a step that interfered with Land’s vision of absolute one-step photography: After being ejected from the camera, the user had to peel back the negative sheet to reveal the final photograph. Some early films required additional steps by the user, such as swabbing the developed image with a coating to stabilize it or adhering the image to a hard backing to prevent curling.
The development of the SX-70 and its film required a complete reformulation of the Polaroid system. Above all, the film was integral, meaning that the negative, positive, and developers were all contained within a film unit and would remain there after developing.
Land described the project to The Photographic Journal in 1974:
“It is an interesting experience to see how all of Absolute One-Step Photography can happen very simply if it happens sequentially, involving both the camera and film in some two hundred to five hundred steps…
“When the film is ejected potassium hydroxide in a few drops of water is spread in a layer 26/10,000 inch thick and ‘all hell breaks loose,’ but in a much more orderly way than that phrase implies. For several minutes chemical reactions occur rapidly one step after another in that thin sandwich and then this progression slowly stops. There is peace again and the picture is complete.”
The camera itself was a remarkably sleek design. When it was first sold in 1972, the product represented the culmination of Land’s 1943 dream of absolute instant photography.
As a manager, Land was known for his progressive policies. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Land hired women and minorities for research and management positions, rather than secretarial and custodial roles. In the 1960s, he hired minorities ahead of many other firms, embracing early affirmative-action programs.
Land received numerous service, technology, and scientific awards during his lifetime, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1963), the National Medal of Science (1967), and the National Medal of Technology (1988). He served as president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences from 1951 to 1953 and was a member of the National Academy of Sciences. Although Land never formally completed his undergraduate degree, he was awarded honorary doctoral degrees by several universities.
Land founded The Rowland Institute for Science (now the Rowland Institute at Harvard) to continue his research, primarily on a theory of color vision perception he proposed known as the retinex theory.
Land retired from Polaroid in 1982, 50 years after founding its predecessor company. Over the course of his career, Land earned 535 patents. He died on March 1, 1991, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
We hope Edwin Land’s story inspired you to come up with your next idea!