Here’s how much of a place the Polaroid Corp. and its products retain in the American psyche. It provides the title of a horror movie — “Polaroid,” slated for 2018 release — and inspires the first of three retrospective exhibitions at Harvard Business School’s Baker Library. How many companies can claim a two-fer like that?
The show, which runs through Dec. 21, has the longer title, by far: “At the Intersection of Science and Art — Edwin H. Land and the Polaroid Corporation: The Formative Years.” It’s also likely a lot more interesting. Melissa Banta curated the show.
In 2006, Polaroid donated its corporate archives to the library. They comprise some 1.5 million items. That’s a lot of items. But Polaroid has had a lot of history. As has often been noted, Polaroid was the Apple of its day: not just technologically innovative and muscularly profitable (until it wasn’t), but also a design leader and cultural touchstone. It was no coincidence that Steve Jobs expressed his admiration for Land, Polaroid’s visionary leader.
Polaroid was founded in Cambridge, in 1937. Soon enough, it would rival the Archdiocese of Boston, Harvard, and the Red Sox as an important local institution. Land had received his first joint patent eight years earlier. It was for a headlight polarizer. The US Patent Office diagram is in the show. Land’s first patent solely in his own name came in 1933. More than 500 would follow. Part of what makes him such a remarkable figure is that even as he points ahead to Jobs he looks back to Thomas Alva Edison.
That first patent was for a means of polarizing light, hence the name Polaroid. The product best associated with the company, instant cameras, didn’t arrive until after World War II. One of the surprises that “At the Intersection of Science and Art” has to offer is seeing how varied Polaroid’s products were — and how quickly that variety emerged. Polarizing lenses, sunglasses, even a desk lamp: All these might be expected. But artificial quinine? Flying goggles? Vectographs (which produced stereo images)? A Polaroid War School? At the school, military personnel learned how to produce Vectographs.
As the school’s name indicates, these less-expected products were produced for the military during World War II. The company’s sales rose 15 times over during the war. But the great advance came with “one-step photography,” as Land called the process whereby a Land camera could produce a single unique positive print without benefit of a darkroom. That may sound ho-hum in a digital age, but at the time it seemed nearly as miraculous as photography itself had a century earlier. Land played up that miraculousness for all it was worth when he unveiled the process in 1947. Like Jobs, he had a rare flair for tech showmanship.
Over the next 40 years, the process would be refined many times over. But it’s essentially at this point that “At the Intersection of Science and Art” ends, with Polaroid about to become Polaroid.
The show includes ads, letters, books, even a Polaroid ID badge. There are photos of a company softball team and Polaroid employees’ big band. Early on, Land understood the importance of corporate culture. That culture was part of the company’s mystique.
But it was technology that drove and defined Polaroid, and it was technology (and mismanagement) that undid Polaroid. Revenues peaked at $3 billion in 1991, the year Land died. Slightly more than 10 years later, Polaroid filed for bankruptcy. Many mistakes had been made, financial as well as technological. The biggest was failure to pursue digital photography, a format that Polaroid engineers had developed. Presumably, this period will figure in the final of the two forthcoming shows. It’s a story to make the chills of that horror movie pale by comparison.
AT THE INTERSECTION OF SCIENCE AND ART — Edwin H. Land and the Polaroid Corporation: The Formative Years
At Baker Library, Harvard Business School, 25 Harvard Way, through Dec. 21. 617-495-6411, www.library.hbs.edu/hc/polaroidMark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.