Featured Portrait of Edwin Land by Fritz Goro/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images. Article submitted to the Polaroid Originals Magazine by Maree Hamilton.
Happy Birthday Dr. Land! Born in 1909, Edwin Land would go on to accomplish a staggering number of things over the course of his career and life — not in the least, founding Polaroid and inventing instant photography. In honor of his birthday, we’re celebrating some of the other awesome things he accomplished, and without which we wouldn’t be where we are today.
1922: The Beginning
When Edwin Land was just a kid, he was already fascinated by the principles of light polarization. In the summer of 1922, when he was 13 years old, he went to camp Mooween in Connecticut. It was run by an eccentric gentleman, Barney “Cap” Girden, who would later hold 20 patents for skin-diving inventions.
Girden encouraged Land’s enthusiasm. He taught Land how to use polarizing photometers to measure light intensity, and talked about how useful it would be to have a synthetic material that could polarize light as it passed through.
Another event that sparked Land’s imagination that summer was when Land and a camp counselor almost crashed into a team of horses and wagon one night because their headlights were so dim. Safely back at the camp, they discussed how this problem could be fixed. In the decades to come, Land would dedicate his work toward finding a way to put synthetic polarizers on car headlights, and in the process, build a commercial technology empire.
1934: What’s in a name?
Land wasn’t only passionate about light polarizers, though. He was also a practiced linguist and engaging writer. According to Instant: The Story of Polaroid, his annual reports were more like thoughtful mission statements than dry financial overviews.
In 1934, he and longtime friend Clarence Kennedy were brainstorming a name for the company’s first product, a sheet polarizer (of course). They landed on the “oid” part first, since it described the product’s celluloid base, and sounded neatly futuristic. “Combine that with ‘polarizer,’” Kennedy told Land, “And you have a name.”
Thus, Polaroid was born.
1939: Seeing Double
The invention and proliferation of plastic sheet polarizers had an impact beyond just car headlight glare reduction. 3-D glasses, for example, work because a polarized material can create the illusion of 3-D images by limiting the light that comes into your eyes. But it only became practical, and inexpensive, to make polarized 3D glasses with Polaroid’s plastic sheets.
Now, Land been privately demonstrating how this technology could work in 1936, but the experience didn’t make its public debut until 1939 – 40 World’s Fair in New York City. At the Chrysler Motors pavilion, visitors could buy special cardboard glasses, in the shape of a 1939 Chevy Plymouth, with lenses made of Polaroid sheeting and watch a short movie in 3-D. Thousands and thousands of people came to the pavilion over the course of the fair, and Polaroid was associated with a new entertainment technology.
1943: The instant that changed everything
There’s something magical about the conversation that sparked the idea for instantly developing film. Land himself called it “the true apocryphal story.” Here’s how it goes: he was on vacation with his family in Santa Fe, and went for a walk with his 3-year-old daughter. He brought his Rolleiflex camera along to take a few pictures. Later, when they were sitting by the fireplace, his daughter asked him a simple, innocent question: “Why can’t I see the picture now?”
He would spend the rest of the night pacing around while the family slept, working out how he could make something like that possible.
1947: “50 seconds.”
Land, as it turns out, also had a flair for theatrics. When he was ready to reveal instant photography to the world, he didn’t just announce it. He showed it off in all its glory, at an Optical Society of America meeting being held in New York City. While he knew the engineers and scientists in the room would find his invention fascinating, his true audience was the group of reporters and press photographers standing at the back.
Using a modified 8×10 camera, Land took a picture of his face. He then pulled the negative sheet out of the camera, joined it with a sheet of photo paper, and began the development process by feeding the whole thing though a processor that would break open the chemical pods. (It was a little less “instant” back.) Then he set a timer, and told the crowd, “50 seconds.”
When it went off, he revealed a fully-developed photo of his face. The crowd gasped, and instant photography was born.
1963: It’s a Polacolorful World
Instant film and cameras were one thing, but the real treat was color instant film. After years and years of research and testing, Polacolor film arrived on the scene in 1963.
Land was a key player in the development of the film, but it was Howard Rogers who figured out an essential core molecule, which was one that coupled the dyes (giving image its color) to the developer (responsible for processing the negative). It was a huge commercial breakthrough for the company, and the launched it alongside a new camera, the Automatic100. Amateur photographers embraced the new film wholeheartedly, and while some pros thought black & white was the only true documentarian style, they would catch up by the ‘70s.
1972: The Original Magic Camera
Up until 1972, Polaroid film didn’t look the way we know it now (you know, with that great white frame). But all of that would change with the invention of the Polaroid SX-70 camera, and Polaroid integral film. See, “integral” film means that everything — the chemicals, negative and positive — are all wrapped up nicely together in one sheet. Before it invention, you had to peel the film apart to see your fully developed image.)
Once again, Land chose to debut the new camera and film at a meeting. He walked in, pulled something the size of a large cigar case out of his pocket, and took 5 instant photos in 10 seconds. It was the first SLR instant camera ever, shooting the first integral instant film.
And it was the moment that Polaroid photography as we know it today began.
1977: One Big Step Forward
The SX-70 camera was a feat of engineering. It was sleek, it was cool, and it was expensive. It sold for $180 when it was released, which is roughly $1000 today.
That’s why, in 1977, the Polaroid OneStep Land camera came out. It was an inexpensive ($24), fixed-focus camera that became the bestselling one in the US, instant or otherwise. Its iconic shape would go on to become a go-to symbol for Polaroid photography itself, and even inspire the original Instagram logo.
A lesser-known, but no less fascinating, Polaroid product debuted that year, too: Polavision. It was an instant color home movie system. You popped a small film cassette into the camera, shot your video, took it out, popped it into the dedicated player, and rewound it. As the film cassette rewound, a tiny pod of chemicals would break open, develop the film and evaporate. It wouldn’t catch on commercially (home video moved toward VCRs), but would be used and loved by artists like Charles and Ray Eames and Andy Warhol.
1979: Time Zero
Land didn’t waste time, no matter what else was going on. He likes to claim that during his court deposition in a legal battle between Polaroid and Kodak, he invented Time Zero film. Either way the film was beloved.
It was a replacement for SX-70 film that not only developed faster, but could be manipulated with a stylus for up to an hour after it was shot. People crafted surreal, magical images with it that looked more like paintings than photographs.
1982: Land Retires
When he was asked by a reporter what his successor might look like, Land once quipped, “We’re making him down in the lab.” There was some truth to it: William McCune, who followed Land as the Polaroid CEO, had spent 36 years working at Polaroid.
Once he stepped down, he didn’t stop doing what he loved. He financed the creation of the Rowland Institute of Science, affectionately called “The Rowland,” which had a campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, not far from Harvard and MIT. Old friends would visit him there, and a few new admirers as well, like Steve Jobs.
So there you have it. Just a small fraction of the incredible achievements we could have mentioned here. Happy Birthday to the one and only Dr. Land! Thanks for paving our way to Polaroid Originals.