May 7: Birth of Edwin Land, Inventor & Founder of Polaroid

 

Today in 1909, Edwin Land, a self-taught inventor and co-founder of Polaroid who revolutionized the way the world experienced photography, was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

After graduating from the Norwich Free Academy in southeastern Connecticut (which later named their library after their famous alumnus), Land attended Harvard University for one year before dropping out to pursue what he described as “more practical” applications of physics and chemistry.  Long fascinated by the uses of polarized light, Land and his former professor George Wheelwright III established Land-Wheelwright laboratories in Boston where they manufactured polarized film and lenses.

Polaroid brand logo, circa 2018.

In 1937, Land and Wheelwright changed the name of their venture to Polaroid.  During World War II, Polaroid designed and manufactured several types of specialty lenses for the U.S. military, including polarized sunglasses, ski goggles, dark-vision goggles, and stereoscopic (3-D) lenses.  After the war, Land continued serving as a scientific advisor to the federal government, and helped develop the cameras used in the Cold War-era U-2 aerial surveillance system.

Edwin Land, as featured on the October 27, 1972 cover of Life magazine.

In 1943, after snapping a photograph of his family on vacation, Land recalled his three-year-old daughter asking why she couldn’t immediately see the photograph he had just taken.  He then proceeded to spend the next four years perfecting an “instant camera” that could produce photographs that would self-develop in 60 seconds.  Polaroid’s instant “Land” cameras became an instant hit and pop culture sensation, experiencing another wave of blockbuster sales after the debut of Polaroid instant color film in 1963.  Even as popular photography swung toward the digital realm in the early 21st century, the square ratio of Polaroid instant photos remained instantly recognizable as a beloved retro symbol of amateur photography.  In 2010, the founders of the popular social media platform Instagram deliberately chose a square 1:1 ratio for their platform’s images as an homage to Polaroid photos.

Land was a notorious workaholic and prolific innovator, securing over 530 patents over the course of his lifetime, earning him comparisons with other legendary American inventors like Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison.  Though he retired from Polaroid in 1982 and died in 1991, his many innovations continue to have an everyday impact on modern American life, from polarized sunglasses and cameria lenses to Instagram photos and beyond.

Further Reading

Edwin Land and Polaroid Photography,” American Chemical Society

Christopher Bonanos, “It’s Polaroid’s World—We Just Live in It,” Wall Street Journal

Our History,” Polaroid Online Interactive Timeline