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How Polaroid created a world of need-it-now shutterbugs

Long before megapixels, iPhones, and Instagram, Edwin Land’s camera ushered in a revolution.

Globe File

IT’S ALWAYS ABOUT the light. Any photographer will tell you that. It was a beautiful December late afternoon in Santa Fe, a place renowned for its unique light. The rocky landscape, faintly dusted with snow, would have been brightly lit in dramatic burnt orange and rose rays refracted from an afternoon sun sinking in the sky. That magical light is the photographer’s best friend and secret weapon.

On this day, a little girl was excited as her father snapped away, taking image after image of her with his spiffy high-tech camera. Edwin Land watched his 3-year-old with delight and shared her joy. The wonders of light had enthralled him since his youth, and had already brought him great wealth and success. He was all of 34.

The year was 1943, and the founder of Cambridge-based Polaroid Corp. had joined his family for a vacation. As World War II approached its conclusion, Land knew that Polaroid could not rely on sales of sheet polarizer — used in sunglasses, camera lenses, and many military applications — to sustain it. He needed to find a new way to exploit his organization’s intellectual capital and entrepreneurial energy. But when Land arrived in Santa Fe, there was no solution in sight. Then came the epiphany. The “high-tech” camera Land was using that day was a Rolleiflex box model. The film would have to be unloaded from the camera, taken to a pharmacy, and shipped off to a laboratory to be painstakingly developed before being shipped back. Land’s daughter was disappointed when she learned that it would be weeks before she would be able to see her photographs. “Why can’t I see these pictures right now?” she asked. “I don’t want to wait.”

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When confronted with an upset child asking silly questions, most fathers would respond with a comforting if exasperated “because” or even “I don’t know.” But not this father. As a colleague acknowledged many years later, Edwin Land “never had an ordinary reaction to anything.”

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Instead, Land shared his daughter’s frustration and embraced it. During the course of a long solitary walk, Land decided on the challenge that would ignite Polaroid’s creativity: He would build a photographic system — a revolutionary camera and film combination — that would allow images to be viewed immediately after being taken. He would invent “one-step photography.”

Land was not intimidated by the magnitude of the challenge. He had great confidence in what could be achieved by following his own personal version of the scientific method. “If you are able to state a problem — any problem — and if it is important enough, then the problem can be solved,” he once said. “You can’t necessarily separate the important from the impossible. If the problem is clearly very important, then time dwindles and all sorts of resources which have evolved to help you handle complex situations seem to fall into place, letting you solve problems you never dreamed you could solve.”

Experience, however, had taught Land that the path to reaching a goal was not always a direct one.

Globe File
Edwin Land outside his Osborne Street laboratory in Cambridge in 1946.

EDWIN LAND’S FASCINATION with light started as a young boy in Norwich, Connecticut, where he became interested in kaleidoscopes, stereopticons, and stereoscopes. The local library had a stereoscope, and Land described how viewing images of caves through it “transported the child through the interplay of stalagmites and stalactites into the distant depths of the caves, having converted the two slightly faded sepia flat dull photographs into a vivid reality in which you could hear the dripping water, smell the dampness, fear the darkness.”

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Inspired by these devices, Land began to read about optical science and discovered the textbook Physical Optics, by a professor of physics at Johns Hopkins University. He slept with the book under his pillow, he later admitted, and read it “nightly in the way that our forefathers read the Bible.”

In high school at Norwich Free Academy, he excelled on the debating and track teams. But what really set Land apart was his work in the physics lab. His teacher, Raymond Case, recalled that by Land’s senior year, in 1926, “he was already working at a level where I couldn’t help him.” At 17, Land graduated with “near-perfect marks” and enrolled at Harvard University. His stay, however, lasted only a semester.

For years, Land had been obsessed with finding a solution to a dilemma with automobile headlights, which were dim enough to be the cause of frequent accidents. Brighter bulbs could be used, but they would dazzle drivers of cars going in the opposite direction. Although prisms made of certain crystals could theoretically remove the glare by “polarizing” the light, they were big and very expensive. Land took a leave of absence from Harvard and set out to invent a more practical synthetic polarizer.

Land’s father agreed to support the endeavor with the equivalent of a $50,000 loan, but only on condition that Edwin seek legal protections to defend his future inventions from big companies looking to steal them. Edwin would accrue hundreds of patents in the years to come, many of which would prove essential to the survival of his company.

In September 1928, 19-year-old Land solved a problem that had eluded physicists for nearly a century. He invented a thin plastic sheet that could act as a polarizer and remove the glare from light. The first customer for Land’s “polaroid” was photography giant Eastman Kodak, which bought a large quantity for use in its camera lenses. Shortly after, he made a deal with American Optical to supply polaroid for sunglasses. By the late 1930s, Land’s Polaroid Corp. was a huge success.

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However, by late 1940, events in Europe began to overshadow whatever progress was being made at Polaroid. England was enduring constant bombing by the Germans, and Land was certain that American involvement was inevitable. Just before Christmas, he gathered his entire staff together for a meeting at their facility on Main Street in Cambridge. From that moment on, Land told them, Polaroid would devote itself to one purpose: “to win this war.”

Globe File
General George S. Patton wears Polaroid goggles in 1943.

By the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Polaroid was already making a variety of special products for the military. To overcome the glare that would often blind a gunner, it produced millions of what Land proudly called “the best damn goggles in the world.” None other than General George S. Patton appeared on the cover of Newsweek outfitted in a pair. And when the Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, its crew was wearing special Polaroid goggles, too.

Throughout the war, Land and his team repeatedly proved their willingness and ability to tackle special assignments. Land’s work brought him to the attention of America’s intelligence community. In the decades to come, Land would serve seven presidents by undertaking a number of top secret projects. Perhaps the most significant was his acceptance of Dwight Eisenhower’s request that a means be found to keep a closer eye on Russia, which was then developing an aircraft capable of delivering the atom bomb. Land’s answer to the call was to help conceive and then shepherd into reality the U2 spy plane.

Although making a profit had not been one of Land’s motives for joining the war effort, his company’s contributions proved good for business. When World War II started, Polaroid had about 75 employees and roughly $1 million in gross annual revenues. By its end, the company employed between 1,200 and 1,300 people and had annual revenues of about $15 million.

Yet, for all that success, Land was troubled about the future. Despite years of work, his mission to get Detroit to adopt his anti-glare technology for headlights remained beyond his reach. The automobile companies considered it too expensive, too impractical, and, arguably, unnecessary. Without that substantial market, Land’s polarizing technology did not seem to have enough potential to fuel the growth of Polaroid at a rate matching his ambition.

Land reluctantly gave up the headlight fight. But he learned one very important lesson: “I knew then that I would never go into a commercial field that put a barrier between us and the customer.”

Rather than deal with other companies as intermediaries, Land would market his innovative products directly to the public. He believed “that the role of industry is to sense a deep human need, then bring science and technology to bear on filling that need. Any market already existing is inherently boring and dull.” Like Steve Jobs many decades later, Land believed that his company should, as he once said, “give people products they do not even know they want.”

Fortunately, he already had such a product in mind.

Globe File
A story on Land’s camera in the April 1947 Popular Science.

Globe File
A reproduction of the first Model 95 photo, a 1946 view of Harvard Yard, taken two years before the camera was offered to the public.

WITHIN DAYS OF returning to Cambridge from his Santa Fe vacation in 1943, Land assigned one of his laboratory assistants, Eudoxia Muller, the task of conducting experiments for his top secret project. While securing the chemicals he needed from colleagues at Eastman Kodak, who had no idea what he was up to, Land sequestered Muller in a separate section of his laboratory, where she worked in complete secrecy.

Land was undertaking nothing less than a revolutionary advance in photography, dispensing with the 11 painstaking steps required to develop and print a conventional picture. In Land’s system, after the initial exposure, all the steps would be subsumed into just one. For this reason, Land would call his process one-step photography. His goal was to devise a camera that would produce a finished print within a minute or two after the picture was taken.

Land’s fundamental concept was that after exposure, the film would be run through a pair of metal rollers that would be used to superimpose the negative and the positive on each other. The rollers would also spread processing solution between the layers, although how the solution would be contained remained an open question. In September 1944, after several approaches were explored, an employee named Frederick Binda apparently came up with the idea of using a “pod” — a small packet that would release the chemicals when it was burst by the rollers.

Ultimately the pod would be used in every one-step photographic system ever produced. Land loved to joke about all of the “young whippersnappers who get out of MIT, and the first thing they try to do when they come to the company is [to] eliminate the pod.”

As the war came to a close, Land increasingly focused on his new pet project. To virtually every Polaroid employee, as well as to the world at large, the company’s primary activity was its production of polarizing apparatus. In his report to shareholders in early 1945, Land announced that Polaroid “continues to accelerate its contribution to the war effort” and admitted that deliveries were behind schedule. He mentioned nothing about the intense research being conducted in secret.

Without military contracts, Polaroid’s earnings were heading for free fall. As a result, Land wondered whether the time had come to crack the door of secrecy on his project. But competing forces buffeted him, highlighting the trademark dichotomy of his personality. In counterpoint to his penchant for secrecy and disappearing deep into his laboratory for great lengths of time was the enormous, boyish joy he derived from wowing an audience with the magic of his latest discovery.

Finally, Land arranged a demonstration of his technology at the winter meeting of the Optical Society of America, to be held in New York on February 21, 1947. At the Hotel Pennsylvania, a large-format camera built for the occasion was unloaded and set up in the front of the room. Land began his presentation and explained how Polaroid’s new camera “will make it possible for anyone to take pictures anywhere, without special equipment for developing and printing and without waiting for his films to be processed.”

Land then invited the president of the Optical Society to the front, asked him to pose, and took his photograph. He turned the crank and out came the sandwich of negative and positive. In a minute, Land peeled away the finished print and showed it to the audience. “It astonished everybody,” reported an attendee. “Everyone went wild.”

Land, a consummate showman, was working his magic. He then took a self-portrait, which was widely featured in newspapers and magazines, including a full-page “Picture of the Week” in Life. And as photographers milled around snapping him and his camera, Land took pictures of them, immediately showing off the results. “Now, let me see your work,” he teased.

The reaction from the press was as ecstatic as Land could have hoped. “There is nothing like this in the history of photography,” The New York Times reported. The Boston Globe wrote that the one-step camera “appealed to Americans’ innate love for instant gratification.” And, as Land himself expressed it, he was delivering “the realization of an impulse: See it, touch it, have it.”

“A Triumph of Genius”
A Polaroid employee demonstrates the Model 95 at Jordan Marsh on the day it went on sale in 1948.

IN THE WAKE OF the publicity generated by the New York demonstration, anticipation of the public release of Polaroid’s one-step system was high. Unfortunately, Land and his colleagues were not even close to being ready. Getting there would take nearly two more years.

Again, Land turned to his friends at Kodak for help. He demonstrated his new system for Kodak’s top scientists, and they agreed to manufacture the negative for Polaroid’s process, an element that Polaroid would then integrate with its own image-receiving sheets.

This was the start of a long cooperative relationship between the companies, with Polaroid eventually becoming Kodak’s second largest corporate customer. But Kodak would later turn on Polaroid and usher to market its own instant camera. The epic patent battle that followed between 1976 and 1991 would become perhaps the most historic fight over technology in US legal history.

By early 1948, no date for the commercial introduction of the one-step system, the Polaroid Model 95, had yet been announced. The system did make some news, however, when the first patents covering the technology issued from the US Patent Office on February 10. “Four patents on cameras for making instantaneous pictures have been issued to Dr. Edwin H. Land, president and director of research, Polaroid Corp.,” read a newspaper account. (Although Land never returned to Harvard to earn even his bachelor’s degree, Tufts College had just given him an honorary doctorate. From this point forward, and for the rest of his life, most people both inside and outside of Polaroid would refer to him as “Dr. Land.”)

As 1948 continued, the pressure was on for Polaroid to get its new system out in time for Christmas. The company had posted another loss in 1947 and had to introduce its new products before the end of the year or face dire fiscal consequences.

Making matters worse, some retailers of photography equipment seemed to have doubts about the camera. Was it more than a gadget? Was the price going to be prohibitively expensive? These reservations led to a wait-and-see attitude on the part of many dealers.

In November, Land made another high-profile presentation, this one to the Photographic Society of America at its annual convention in Cincinnati. The New York Times reported that the Model 95 “brought frequent applause during the course of the demonstration by Dr. Edwin H. Land, the inventor.”

The photography columnist for The Boston Globe, George Green, had known about the Model 95 for months but had been embargoed from writing about it. “If you’ve ever kept a secret for more than a year, you can well imagine how much restraint I had to exercise to refrain from telling these rumor-mongers that The Polaroid camera is not a gadget,” he wrote with apparent relief. “It stands on the same plane as the comparison between a Model T Ford and a DC 6 airplane . . . both will get you to your destination, but one does it much faster and just as efficiently.”

The date for the public release had been set for November 26, 1948, the day after Thanksgiving. Due to the industry’s initial ambivalence, the decision had already been made not to sell through the normal distributors who dealt in photographic products. Instead, Polaroid would sell directly to the Jordan Marsh department store, which would receive the initial supply of cameras and as many rolls of film as Polaroid could produce.

Polaroid Images for a January 25 Magazine story Boston Globe Staff File Photo, Undated. Dr. Edwin H. Land, Chairman of the Board and Director of Research of Polaroid Corporation, holds up a color photograph he took moments earlier with ta new Polaroid SX-70 film that produces a fully developed print in about one minute. Dr. Land demonstrated the super fast SX-70 film at Polaroid's annual shareholders' meeting. This is one of the most important new developments we have ever made, and we'r working vigorously to complete the procedures for introduction, he said.
Globe File
Edwin Land, like Steve Jobs many decades later, believed a company should “give people products they do not even know they want.”

There wasn’t much. Only 50 cameras could be manufactured before the introduction date. The film, being made by hand at Polaroid’s facility in Cambridge, was also in very short supply. Nonetheless, there was nothing to do but proceed.

A Polaroid employee loaded up the first batch of cameras and film into the trunk of his car and took them over to the department store in Downtown Crossing. A demonstration platform was set up, with a sign that read: “May we take your photograph with the new Polaroid Land Camera?”

The Jordan Marsh camera department was known for selling low-cost Brownie cameras and other Kodak equipment. Polaroid’s products, however, were aimed at a completely different market. The initial price for the Model 95 was set at $89.75 (about $886 today), and an eight-pack of film was offered for $1.75 (the equivalent of about $17). At those prices, would any of the store’s customers be interested?

Any suspense over whether there would be interest in the new system was short-lived. A crowd grew quickly in the store, and excitement spread as people lined up to buy a Polaroid camera on the spot.

It sold out in one day.

Ronald K. Fierstein, an attorney and entertainment executive, helped represent Polaroid in its patent battle with Eastman Kodak. This story was adapted from his forthcoming book, “A Triumph of Genius: Edwin Land, Polaroid, and the Kodak Patent War.” Copyright © 2015 by the author; reprinted with permission of Fierstein and Ankerwycke, an imprint of the American Bar Association.

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Meet the Author: On February 24 at 6 p.m., Fierstein will be discussing “A Triumph of Genius” at the MIT Museum, 265 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge. 617-253-5927, mitmuseum.org