The Cambridge Historical Society The Cambridge Historical Society
The history of innovation in Cambridge
Land Camera (from CHS collection)


748 Memorial Drive

Edwin Land (1909-1991) was an institution of innovation. As his biographer Victor McElheny explains, “Recounting his life is a meditation on the nature of innovation.”(1) He created internationally-known products, established two entire industries, and the company he founded became a household name. Land played a formative role in the study of optics, chemistry, physics, electronics, educational policy, and military strategy during both the Second World War and the Cold War. The impact of his work is immense, yet Edwin Land is perhaps best known for the company he created: Polaroid.

Land came to Cambridge in 1927 to attend Harvard University, and quickly distinguished himself as a brilliant thinker. After only one semester, however, he became disillusioned with the academic process. Those he saw around him did not share his passion, and his learning style was not conducive to the academic system. Land asked for a leave of absence from Harvard, and moved to New York City to try his hand at writing the next great American novel. Writing never satisfied his scientific passions, however, in New York he did meet Helen Maislen (known as Terre), the woman who was to be his wife for the next 61 years. After attending some classes at Columbia and experimenting in the field of polarized light, Land re-enrolled at Harvard, but maintaining his interest was difficult. Once Land had solved a problem in his own head, he had no interest in writing it down or explaining it to others. He was already on to the next problem. To try and ensure Land's success his professors suggested that his wife help type his lab reports at their house at 40 Linnean Street, so that Land would earn credit for the intriguing experiments he was doing. Land was in the class of a graduate student, George Wheelwright, when Wheelwright called Land's wife asking, “Mrs. Land can't you do something to get him to finish [his work]?” She replied, “Oh, it's the bane of my existence. He does the same on fixing things. He works on it as long as he doesn't understand it, but as soon as he understands it he wants somebody else to do it.”(2) Despite the help of his wife and professors, Land dropped out of Harvard again in 1932, and never completed his degree. Later in life, Land would be awarded  more than 20 honorary degrees from institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Carnegie Institute of Technology, Williams College, Tufts University, Washington University, Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, University of Massachusetts, and Brandeis University.

When Land left Harvard he opened up the Land-Wheelright Laboratory with his physics instructor George Wheelright. The first space they rented was a garage on the corner of Mount Auburn and Dunster Streets in the summer of 1932, although he would later move his laboratory to find more seclusion in which to work. The problem that so thoroughly fascinated Land was that of polarizing light. Land had been fascinated with light since his childhood. He was fascinated by Robert S. Wood's analysis of light in the book Physical Optics, where Wood writes, “Rays of light exist...which possess a one-sidedness and behave differently when differently oriented. For example, it is possible to obtain light which a glass or water surface refuses to reflect at a certain angle of incidence. Such light is said to be polarized.”(3) What had spurred Land back to Harvard for his second attempt was that while in New York he had successfully created inexpensive filters for polarizing light. Polarization had been possible up until this point, but crystals, and later glass plates covered in crystals, were needed to cover large surface areas in order to polarize them. Scientists were trying to make the largest crystals possible, but no one was succeeding.  Land then employed one of his favorite innovative techniques and addressed his failure with large crystals with “the complete reversal of his approach to the problem.”(4) Land instead tried to make the tiniest crystals possible and disperse them over an area in a sort of lacquer, similar to spray paint. He could then use a magnetic field to orient the crystals and hold them in one direction. When Land achieved this he later explained it to be, “the most exciting single event in my life.”(5)

Land received his first of more than 500 patents for his innovation on June 13, 1933, for which he had filed jointly with Joseph S. Friedman of Brookline, Mass. Land was a great inventor, but he was also well-aware of the commercial applications of his discovery. Introducing his polarization to create glare-free car headlights was Land's first attempt for an application of his invention. Land petitioned the car companies for more than a decade, but his glare-free headlights were never adopted. What grew his laboratory, in terms of both fame and money, were glare-free desk lamps, sunglasses, movies, and stage effects.

All of these possibilities were extremely attractive for investors if they could be commercialized successfully, and part of attracting the public was deciding on a name. Land's friend and collaborator Clarence Kennedy, a Smith College art historian, is credited with coining the name polaroid for the product and therefore the company that formed from Land-Wheelright Laboratory in 1937. A professor had suggested that the synthetic sheet polarizing material that was being used in new glare-free products be called “epibolopole.” Land and Kennedy had thought the name, “was a little heavy...Then Kennedy suddenly said, 'How about polaroid?' and that took immediately.”(6)

At the onset of World War II, Land was a scientific celebrity and his company was a success. In 1941, just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Vannevar Bush, new director of the federal Office of Scientific Research and Development, offered Polaroid the opportunity to make a wartime contribution. When the United States entered the war, Polaroid had several major defense contracts and developed products such as: scopes for guns on tanks and goggles for pilots during night bombing missions, a 3-dimensional machine gun training simulator, filters for rangefinders and periscopes, and a hand-held optical device to determine the elevation of an aircraft above the horizon. Polaroid made a fortune during the war, and Land's personal contributions were remembered when he named to the President's Science Advisory Committee during the Cold War era. In this role Land was a key player in the development of a number of spy satellites as well as the U2 spy plane, though land was as secretive about his involvement as he was prolific in his suggestions and contributions. Land's personal papers were destroyed by an assistant at the time of his death, and his house at 163 Brattle Street later burned as well, destroying anything that may have remained inside.

After the war, Land and Polaroid returned to the civilian market. It is in this capacity that Land's influence reigns strongest in memory. During the war, Land's laboratories had developed a synthetic form of quinine. The United States had been importing natural quinine, from Cinchona trees, from Japan, but this was no longer an option during the war. Quinine, however, is needed for the treatment of malaria, essential for the U.S. troops fighting in tropical climates during the Second World War. What Land also discovered, and used to his advantage after the war, was that synthetic quinine could also be used for the production of cameras.

Land knew he would have to compete with Kodak's low-cost camera if he wanted to enter the photography market. Instead of low-cost he went for speed. The day after Thanksgiving in 1948, Land introduced the “Model 95” at a Jordan Marsh Department Store in Downtown Crossing, Boston. He sold all 56 of his cameras that first day, at a cost of $89.75 each plus $1.75 for film, and the headlines of the Boston newspaper announced his success. This camera could develop sepia-tone film in 60 seconds and sold 4,000 in its first week of sales at Macy's in New York. America became obsessed with Polaroid's instant photography.

Land was adept at marketing and make “a Polaroid” synonymous with “a snapshot.” Early advertisements explain how “picture-in-a-minute photography” worked: “All you do is snap the shutter, wait a minute, and then lift the finished picture from the back of the camera—dry and ready to enjoy.” Polaroid expanded to black and white, and later color film. Always seeking perfection, Land thought he had found it in 1972 with the “SX-70” model camera, introduced to the public by Sir Lawrence Olivier. Polaroid describes this camera as “the first automatic single-reflex camera which ejects self developing, self-timing pictures.”(7)

The “SX-70” was perhaps the peak of Polaroid's achievement. Later attempts at a Polavision instant movie system were a financial failure. Land resigned as both Chairman of Polaroid and Director on July 27, 1982 at age 72. Despite tie-in ad campaigns throughout the 80s and 90s with Sinbad, the Spice Girls, and Barbie, Polaroid failed to keep up with modernizing photography. Land was essentially asked to leave his own company “which is one of the dumbest things I have ever heard of” remarked Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs in 1985.(8) Land, always a scientist first, would go on to found the Rowland Institute for Science, to which he devoted the remaining year of his life.

Polaroid's more recent history has not mirrored the innovation and success of its earlier years. In 2001 the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and the following year the assets of the company were acquired by the partners of Equity One. By 2008, with the proliferation of digital photography and printers for producing images Polaroid announced all instant film production to cease in 2008/2009, and at the end of the 2008 the re-organized Polaroid Corporation again filed for bankruptcy. In an attempt to regain its former glory, on January 5, 2010, Polaroid partnered with pop-singer Lady Gaga appointing her as Creative Director for the company and naming her the the "new face" of Polaroid.  A new line of film and a new camera were also released in 2010 in hopes of keeping the company alive.

Edwin Land passed away in 1991 and did not see much of the trouble that his company has fallen into. Perhaps the company's troubles are in part due to the loss of their innovative founder. Land's innovation was not only in his scientific laboratory but his community as well, both locally and nationally. Land is credited with playing a role in altering the educational approach at MIT. In a series of talks he gave in 1957 Land proposed more first-hand scientific research for students, and his influence is still obvious today. In 1967 he helped propose major U.S. government support for educational television broadcasting. He dedication to the process of research and innovation was second to none, and spent the later years of his life promoting the study of science. In 1963 he was awarded the Medal of Freedom, in 1968 (for secret and non-secret work) he received the National Medal of Science, and in 1977 he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

It was important to Land to situate his business activities in an intensely active scientific environment that included most areas of science. Whenever anyone asked him ‘Where is Polaroid?’, he replied ‘Between Harvard and MIT.’(9) The building which became the symbol and headquarters of Polaroid in Cambridge was the Polaroid Building at 784 Memorial Drive, formerly the B B Chemical Building. The building is an innovation in its own right, and was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. It was designed by the Boston architectural firm Coolidge, Shepley, Bullfinch, and Abbott and completed in 1938—the year after Walter Gropius was introduced as the new head of Harvard's Department of Architecture in the Graduate School of Design. This was the first modern industrial structure in Cambridge. The building is an example of the International Style of architecture, marked by clean lines, cost effectiveness, and affordable construction. It was in 1979 that the Polaroid company bought the building and added the iconic “POLAROID” name on the front of the building. Polaroid maintained operations from this site until 1996, and from October 1997 through July 1998 the complex was emptied to allow for restoration of the entire complex and the creation of a new world headquarters, though subsequent difficulties derailed these plans. Despite the recent struggles that Polaroid has faced, the company’s founder remains one of Cambridge’s most innovative thinkers and his company one of the most well-known around the globe during its prime.

Cambridge on the Cutting Edge pamphlet
“Enterprising Cambridge” booklet
McElheny, Insisting on the Impossible.

     McElheny, 1 (back to text)

     Quotations taken from McElheny, p. 44 (back to text)

     McElheny, 19 (back to text)

     McElheny, 35 (back to text)

     McElheny, 37. (back to text)

     McElheny, 66 (back to text) (back to text)

     Mc Elheny, 454 (back to text)