May 7: A Developing Story


For more than a century after practical photography was invented in 1839, all photographers had to wait to see the pictures they had taken until the images had gone through a lengthy, chemical developing process. The man who was to change all that, Edwin Land, was born in Bridgeport today in 1909. Land, a self-taught inventor and co-founder of Polaroid, revolutionized the way the world experienced photography.

After graduating from the Norwich Free Academy in southeastern Connecticut (which later named their library after this famous alumnus), Land attended Harvard University for one year. He then dropped 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 he snapped a photograph of his family on vacation, Land’s three-year-old daughter asked why she couldn’t see the photograph right away. He spent the next four years perfecting an “instant camera” that could produce photographs that would self-develop in 60 seconds. Polaroid’s “Land” cameras, with their square black and white “instant” photographs, became a spectacular consumer hit and pop culture sensation. They experienced a second wave of blockbuster sales with the debut of Polaroid instant color film in 1963. And even after popular photography swung toward the digital realm in the early 21st century, the square ratio of Polaroid photos remained immediately recognizable as a beloved symbol of early instant amateur photography. In 2010, the founders of the 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 during his lifetime. This earned him comparisons with other legendary geniuses such as Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison. Though he retired from Polaroid in 1982 and died in 1991, Land’s many innovations continue to have an everyday influence on American life, from polarized sunglasses and camera 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