Edwin Herbert Land: Biography, Facts & Inventions

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we will explore the life and work of the 20th-century inventor Edwin Herbert Land. Infatuated with light and its polarization, Land is best known for creating the first Polaroid Camera.

Genius Dropouts

Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Michael Dell - what do all of these giants of the tech world have in common? They all dropped out of college. Geniuses of their time, these men and others like them took their big ideas from the classroom into the real world so fast they couldn't find the time to graduate.

But this type of thing is not just a phenomenon of the computer age. Earlier generations had their own Jobses and Zuckerbergs; this lesson will explore one such extraordinary inventor and entrepreneur: Edwin Herbert Land.

Early Life

Edwin Herbert Land was born in 1909 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Land showed a tremendous scientific curiosity as a young boy. He was particularly interested in light and its properties. While most teenage boys were likely thinking about more mundane matters, Land dreamed of developing polarized light filters that would reduce the glare on automobile lights and improve visibility when driving at night.

Land began his formal university life at Harvard in 1926. But after only a few months sitting in stuffy classrooms and dozing through equally stuffy lectures, Land left Harvard and moved to New York City. In the Big Apple, Land began conducting independent research while occasionally using resources from the New York Public Library. However, when he needed lab space, Land secretly sneaked into Columbia University to conduct experiments.

Polarizers & WWII

Land's clandestine activities resulted in a stunning breakthrough: he was able to create a large sheet of clear plastic upon which massive quantities of microscopic crystals were placed that he could then polarize with an electromagnet. Land foresaw numerous applications for his polarized sheets even though the idea which originally spawned the invention, reducing glare for nighttime drivers, was never taken up by the automotive industry.

Land returned to Harvard in 1929 although he never finished his degree. In 1932, Land and George Wheelwright, one of Land's former physics professors, founded Land-Wheelwright Laboratories to manufacture and mass produce polarizers. The company's first products built upon the technology that Land had first created in New York and continued to perfect in the ensuing years. They built polarizers for use in photography, polarized sunglasses, and rudimentary three-dimensional movie film.

In 1937, the company invited public investment for the first time and changed its name to the Polaroid Corporation. But instead of focusing on its burgeoning film business, Land shifted the company's focus just as the world's focus shifted to Europe. He challenged the company to develop new and innovative products that would help the United States win WWII. The company delivered; they created gun sights, anti-glare goggles, and a product called the vectograph which used polarized light technology to allow the military to view maps in three dimensions.

Polaroid Film and Camera

Land's patriotic wartime efforts didn't stop his curious mind from attending to business matters. Throughout the war, Land continued to tinker with polarized film and the properties of polarized light. Shortly after the war, Land and Polaroid began selling the product with which their company's name would become synonymous.

At the time, developing photos required special expertise and meticulous work in a dark-room. From the time they were taken and dropped off at a developer, it could be several days before someone saw their photos. Land, prompted by an innocent question from his three-year old daughter, set out to simplify the process. Eventually, he was able to compact the entire darkroom process inside of a single camera. Land unveiled his technology in 1947, and the Polaroid Land Camera was an instant success when it hit the markets the following year.

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